This 500-Year-Old Piece of Advice Can Help You Solve Your Modern Problems

Can the wisdom of 17th-century philosopher René Descartes help you sort out your life?

Shaunta Grimes
Published in
3 min readNov 13, 2019


Photo: Willie B. Thomas/Getty Images

DDiscourse on the Method, the treatise by 17th-century philosopher René Descartes, is best known for bringing us the famed declaration cogito ergo sum, which translates to “I think, therefore I am.” It’s arguably one of the most influential ideas in the history of Western philosophy — but there’s another quote in the writings that feels more applicable to my modern-day challenges.

Descartes proclaims: “Divide each difficulty into as many parts as is feasible and necessary to resolve it.”

The line is referring to his method for evaluating the logic of a statement, yet the applications are much broader. So often, we’re weighed down by the magnitude of our problems, uncertain which direction to take or if we can get ourselves unstuck at all. But as Descartes reminds us, any “difficulty” is rarely a single challenge, but rather a culmination of smaller tensions.

And the way to address these tensions is one at a time. If at any point you get stuck, break it down even further. Keep going until you have a problem small enough to fix.

Let’s get a little wild here and visualize Descartes’ maxim as an actual problem-solving machine where we can toss in a problem and it spits out a bunch of different parts. I’ll try one:

I don’t feel well.

This is a generic, too-big-to-digest problem. But wait, here’s what comes out of the machine:

I don’t handle winter well. It’s too cold. It’s too gray. I miss my family the most when the weather is so different from what I’m used to. I want to go home. I haven’t seriously exercised in at least a year. My arthritis is acting up. I’m in menopause. I’m not sleeping well.

Now that the problem is broken down, I can start to see resolutions.

Okay, why don’t I plan to visit my family sometime soon? Let me set a timer for a 15-minute workout before dinner. I’ll go to bed earlier tonight.

Any challenges that are left should go back into the machine to be broken down even further. I’m not



Shaunta Grimes
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