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Don't hire optimizers when you need problem solvers

"Don't hire optimizers when you need problem solvers."
- Keith Rabois

While this is a great thing to keep in mind at the time of hiring employees, it is also a sound strategy to apply in everything we do.

Two of the things I spend the best part of my waking hours doing - building products and creating content - can use this advice.

When you have figured out the direction and have a fairly clear picture of the end goal, you optimize. This is like turning knobs and balancing weights until you arrive at the perfect combination that takes you to your end goal. It is like driving on the centre of the road. Sometimes you swerve to the left and overtake someone or swerve to the right to avoid a pothole. You brake to slow down and let a dog run past or step on the accelerator and shift to top gear. But all the time, your goal is to drive at the centre of the road. Because you know that is how you will reach your destination. The difference is in reaching in 45 minutes or in 40 or in 60. 

When you have no idea what the end goal is or in what direction you ought to move, you problem solve. This involves exploring new ideas and setting your own direction. Here, the goal is not to stick to the centre of the road, but to find the right road among the many that are available. If you pick one and focus on sticking to the centre, you might go very far before you realise that you are headed down the wrong road. 

In building products and in running businesses, this means that you first identify the real user problem and then go about solving it. Only later do you come to optimizing for engagement and conversion. 

In writing, optimizing is editing while the actual act of putting together words and sentences is the problem solving. 

In life, very often, we tend to optimize when we ought to be problem solving. We decide to study engineering when we haven't figured out if that's what we really want to do and we go about focusing on how to be a good engineer. There is a nice scene in the movie, 3 Idiots, where Aamir Khan explains this very thing to his two friends. 

There is a time to optimize and there is a time to problem solve. 

If I try to achieve impeccable grammar and spelling and sentence formation and metaphor usage in the first paragraph, I will take forever before I realise that in order to proceed, I actually need to change the core idea with which I started the first paragraph. 

When stuck, take a step back, and see for yourself what you ought to be doing. And if you're doing the opposite.

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