Your mission, should you choose to accept it…
During your student career, I’m sure that you’ve come across many challenges with no clear goals. Or perhaps you had the freedom of setting goals yourself.
Back in High School, I heard about a contest for high school students. Participants were expected to build a project that made our country better (it was named Make Portugal Better!, actually). Of course, that was a vague request and we had a lot of paths available to us.
Finding problems worth solving may prove itself harder that it sounds. If you are facing this kind of freedom when choosing a problem, you may feel overwhelmed for a number of reasons:
- Too much to choose from! Broad study fields may make us to feel like sardines in a vast ocean. Physics and Biology textbooks comprise a lot of chapters and those chapters have a lot sub-sections. You may meet with your team for several work sessions only to realize that no real work was done.
- We have a lot of ideas, but they all suck… If you ever felt like this, then you didn’t brainstorm properly, you tried to silence ideas before they even had time to prove themselves. Judging ideas too soon may lead to the unfortunate death of the best of them.
- It sounded like a good idea, but now we’re not so sure. Serious challenges are scary. Only people who work on them realize the pressure and fear of failure. The solution for these concerns doesn’t lie on the problem itself, but on the planning process. A strong vision also adds to your courage and resolve.
Defuse these concerns by shifting your perspective. Carefully examine your environment, search for inspiration, question everything and brainstorm properly with your team.
Examine the environment
The best problems are found in your environment. You’re surrounded by cool problems to solve in your school, home, neighborhood, town, state and even country! Everyday objects become tools to work with, like a computer or a smartphone. In each one of these places or objects resides either a goldmine or future Nobel prize, you just have to know how to look.
My most ambitious project so far was built on the dream of reducing the burden of cardiovascular diseases nationally and worldwide. We started small, organizing health activities in our school, and then grew to a point where we visited the Fu Foundation of Engineering in Columbia University!
Ask yourself, from the moment you get up in the morning to the moment you go to bed at night, how many problems, dilemmas and hindrances do you go through? I am sure you could write a list with more than 100 items, ranging from the urgent need of atomic alarm clocks to the debilitating lack of robotic beds.
Examining your environment is also an opportunity to network and meet people eager to either work with you or help you. Remember that you will need help and support from knowledgeable people, especially when working on more ambitious projects.
Search for inspiration
This is another great way to generate new problem ideas. People and organizations are already innovating, developing, selling and fundraising. Take a look at what others are doing and it might strike a cord. You may end up saying “Hey, what if I did this at my hometown/school/college?”.
Don’t confuse this method with copying or stealing. It’s ok to look for ideas, but don’t forget to ask for permission when justified. Be sure to check the rules of the organization you are working for (maybe your teacher wants a work that is 100% original) and acknowledge other people.
Inspiration is everywhere. Look for it here:
- Projects in your school/college: always check if there are other groups of students who share the same interests as you. Are they working on something and need help? Could you collaborate with them for a win-win scenario? What about past students who built and developed things 5 years ago? What was their project? Can you bring it back to life or revamp it? Are there teachers who are interested in subjects you are interested as well? Can they help you achieve your goals?
- Local institutions, labs, hospitals: people who work passionately on a project are always looking to share their experience and if students are interested, that’s a big plus. They will seldom say no to requests coming from motivated students. Ask yourself “What are the main fields of research in my area?”, “Could I help them/Could they help me?”.
- Library: libraries are often overlooked as excellent sources of information, since accessing a website is quicker and usually easier. When looking for inspiration, however, don’t underestimate their potential. In their shelves, you will find collections of books, magazines and newspapers with pictures and infographics missing on the Web. Print material is likely to open your eyes to a broader perspective.
- Websites: the Internet is my #1 source of inspiration. Not only does it feature information, images and video, but also documents the experiences of people behind successful DIY, entrepreneurial or professional projects. Youtube.com, Instructables.com, Reddit.com, message boards and forums should serve you well.
The habit of questioning the status quo is not just what innovative people do, it’s what will motivate you to solve interesting problems. Refuse living with obstacles and annoyances and try to find solutions instead. This change in your mental framework will generate tons of ideas.
Always ask the hard questions like:
- What if…
- I added x?
- I removed x?
- built y but instead of z I did z2?
- removed the battery and made it powered by y?
- I organized an event like yxz?
- Could this be done any better?
- More efficient?
- More environment-friendly?
- Broader/engaging more people?
- Is Mr. Smith having trouble doing x? Can I help him?
- Can my skills be used to do y?
As a final note, remember that the best and most exciting idea or problem will go nowhere without stellar execution. Don’t go project-hopping.
Finish what you started. More than imagination or creativity, delivering finished work requires willpower, technical expertise, problem solving skills and eliciting the collaboration of others. That’s a whole other chapter, though.