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Idea Seeds #06 - Problem Solving, Pictures

Updated on June 30, 2017

Pictures in Your Mind

In Article Five my I introduced you to one of my father's Giants, Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman, “A genius who brought us new ways to view the world” as described in a report from the ‘Independent’. I also introduced you to the diagrams Feynman used to show the links between, ‘least action’, the path a professional lifesaver would use to get to a swimmer in distress, and the refraction of light. It was suggested you make an annotated sketch for the refraction of light to establish these links for yourself. If you make annotated sketches and drawings and review them regularly you will find that you will be able to ‘visualise’ them in your mind. The more you practice doing this, the better you will get at making them and keeping them there. Think about the pictures you already have stored away in your mind and try and identify ‘what got them there?’ and ‘why they have endured?’


Childhood Longings Linger

My father describes when watching a glider, whether on TV or the real thing, his mind recalls the spectacular gliding scenes from the movie, ‘The Thomas Crown Affair’ and the words from the theme song, ‘Windmills of your mind’ played during the scenes, which start jingling in his head. The song ends with the lines: “As the images unwind − Like the circles that you find − In the windmills of your mind”. The answer to the ‘what got them there?’ question is self evident, the ‘why they have endured?’ question goes back to his childhood interests in aeroplanes and his, as yet, undimmed desire to fly.

Innumerable Little and Simple Things

When he walks onto a beach and see lifesavers sitting on their elevated perches keeping watch, Richard Feynman’s pictures of the ‘least action’ paths the lifesavers would take if they had to get to a swimmer in distress and how this is ‘analogous’ with the refraction of light rays, start appearing like a slide show in his head. Feynman's wise words: “Learn by trying to understand the innumerable little and simple things you see around you in terms of other ideas”, features in the sound track and he says a silent thank you to him for his sage advice. I hope these words inspire you too.



You need no more than five minutes to make the two simple sketches shown above. My father did so when he read ‘Genius’ in 1995 and the ‘Eureka’ moment is still etched on his mind. At this stage, even if you don’t know much about ‘Return-On-Investment (ROI), it must be clear that the ‘return’ he got from doing so was an understanding that will be around for the rest of his life. The ‘return’, when measured against the little time he had to ‘invest’ to get to that understanding is huge.


Robert Pirsig

If you follow Feynman's advice, it is essential to develop a ‘smart personal filing system’ to keep track of the information and ideas you gather. Where, for example, would you have filed these pictures so you could quickly and effortlessly retrieve them if needed? Believe me when I tell you that a filing system based in a computer is not the way to go. My father spent many years trying various systems before adopting the one he uses now. He based it on one developed by another of ‘his Giants’, ‘Robert Pirsig’, author of ‘Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance’, a book that is regularly rated in polls in the USA as one of the best books of the 20th Century’, and his other book ‘Lila’ in which he describes his filing system.

A mind Extension

Each bit of information or idea, Pirsig collected for his books, he wrote on a small slip of paper about 130 x 70 mm in size and then filed it in a tray under a topic category. He did so, he said: “because ‘information organised into small chunks can be accessed and sequenced at random which makes it much more valuable than in any other form’.” He also said that knowing that all his previously collected information and ideas were safely filed and ready for easy retrieval, allowed him to keep his head empty and ready to learn about new things,. He viewed the information stored on the over 10 000 slips in the trays as an ‘extension to his mind’.


A Forest for the trees

When the number of slips in a topic category grew too large, he made subcategories to make retrieval faster. He also had some non-topical categories; the first and much used, he labelled ‘Unassimilated’, where he filed things he hadn’t had time to think properly about or an idea that had come to him while he was busy doing something else; a hold-until-later category. Next he devised a set of slips he labelled ‘Program Slips’ on which he wrote instructions to himself on how he intended handling certain batches of slips. He used them he said: “to keep track of the forest while he was busy thinking about individual trees.” Each slip had only one instruction written on it so it too could be randomly accessed, easily changed and resequenced if needed.



When reviewing and sequencing topical slips, those that seemed important when he filed them but on reflection were found to be unimportant, he would re-file as ‘Junk’. He never threw any slips away and would, from time to time, revisit the slips filed in ‘Junk’ where he says he regularly found slips that were indeed important and moved them back to where they had come from.


The slip system has a number of significant advantages over computers. For my father the effort to go to a computer, write an idea down and decide where to file it is so much greater than the effort of writing the idea down on a slip of paper no matter where he is; in a bath, in bed, walking the dog, on holiday or sitting watching TV. Anything that helps getting things closer to the ‘least action’ concept of being ’smart lazy’, gets his vote. All the slips in a category can be laid out on a table, sorted, sequenced, and ‘where ideas are found that can be used to explain things in terms of other ideas’ new slips can be made or rewritten to make content clearer. Sketches can be made, improved and annotations added with much less fuss and effort and much much faster than you can in a computer. It is easy to add Program Control slips to show how batches of topic or idea slips are linked and how you plan to deal with them.

The system is similar to the ‘Storyboards’ used in the ‘movie industry’ and by ‘crime detectives’. Watch one of the many detective programmes on television and you will see them building their case on magnetic white boards or something similar. They draw ‘time-lines’, write notes, and pin photographs, maps and other bits of evidence on them. This makes it easy to move the pieces around as they try and establish the links that will prove ‘Motive’, ‘Opportunity’ and ‘Means’, (MOM) to secure a conviction.

Lets Make it Happen

Let me help you get going. Make 50 slips each 130 x 70 mm in size. If you cut them from A4 paper, aim for least waste, that ‘least action’ thing again! An A4 sheet of paper is 297 x 210 mm. I work with my slips in landscape and print labels in the left top corner and the date in the right hand corner. Label and date you first slip ‘Principle of least action’ (‘PLA’) a topic category. Label the next ‘(PLA) - Refraction of light’ and make the necessary notes and sketches to explain it. If you need more than one slip to do so, pin or staple them together and then file them under ‘Principle of least action’. Make topic category slips for ‘Problem Solving Check List’, ‘Puzzles’, ‘Quotations’, and then go through the previous articles and make slips for any others you think necessary.


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