Asking for Help

Originally posted March 26, 2016


When faced with a puzzle you can't solve, how do you deal with it? There's a school of thought that says that one should never peek at the solution to a puzzle, and that if you can't figure it out, you should leave the puzzle alone and try again another day. I think their reasoning goes like this: a puzzle presents a once-in-a-lifetime chance to have your mind blown, and once you've spoiled yourself on the solution, you've forever lost that opportunity. Additionally, you get to say that you didn't give up, and that you were able to do it by yourself. On the other hand, peeking means that you now know one more trick to solve future puzzles. And it's faster.

So, to peek or not to peek?

Personally, I've never had compunctions about peeking at the solutions. I remember one of the first times I did this - it was a lateral thinking puzzle book. I even remember the exact question: "Q: A hundred people are dead in a cabin in the woods. How? A: It was a airplane cabin and the airplane crash landed!" Cue groaning. I remember feeling merely confused at the time, when I first peeked at the answer, but today, it annoys me. It's a knock-knock joke of a puzzle, except that you're being asked to figure out the punch line. By peeking, I now know all the lame puzzle solutions and I get to annoy (or impress) the people who ask them, by somehow knowing the unguessable answers.

I'm also an avid peeker of problem set and exam solutions. Whenever I encountered a question I couldn't solve in some reasonable amount of time, I'd try to find an explanation online - or more frequently, I would turn in half-empty problem sets and wait for solutions to be posted. Either way, I ended up learning the same material.

You might wonder whether I learned the material as thoroughly by peeking at solutions. In practice, after peeking at enough solutions, I'd be able to recombine the patterns and strategies to solve new puzzles. By solving new puzzles, I'd solidify my grasp of the ideas. (This usually happened in the exam room...) Admittedly, if I didn't get to the point where I was solving new puzzles, I wouldn't end up learning the material very well.

What happens, though, when a puzzle doesn't have a published solution you can peek at?

It turns out that these puzzles are the kinds of puzzles you're hired to figure out, once you leave school. School is somewhat magical in that even if you don't finish the problem sets or finish the exam, you get to peek at the solutions afterwards. So it ended up being perfectly fine that I got bad grades: I got to peek at the solutions and learn from them regardless, so that I could do better next time. But outside of school, there's no system that automatically posts solutions to the puzzles you can't solve. So, what can you do? You can solve the puzzles the hard way... or you can peek.

As it turns out, there's more than one way to peek at the solution to a puzzle - and this new way works on puzzles without published solutions. It's simple: ask someone for help.

Looking back at my days in school turning in half-empty problem sets, I realize that I rarely learned interactively from another human being. I preferred learning by trying things myself, reading textbooks, reading books, searching the Internet, and using other inanimate sources of information. Even when I attended lectures, the lecture itself may as well have been a textbook, fed through a speech synthesizer.

Why did it never occur to me that I might learn from another person? I think it was because I was afraid to dump my problems on other people. In my limited experience working in groups, asking other people for help amounted to asking them to do your homework for you. That annoyed me when I was the one being asked, and I didn't want to annoy other people the same way. I instead turned to books and the internet, which didn't mind that I was using them.

Funnily enough, it turns out that people don't actually mind doing your homework for you, as long as you've tried doing it yourself first. I should have known this because I've tutored and taught quite a bit myself. As a teacher, my first response to any question I get is, "Well, what have you tried?". It annoys me when people haven't tried anything before asking for help, but when they have tried something, I find myself all too happy to answer their questions. So I don't know why I thought other people would respond differently.

Ultimately, I think peeking at solutions is a fine approach to life. It requires a bit of adaptation once you've left school, because life won't automatically post solutions for your unsolved problems. Instead, you'll have to go hunting on your own. But there's a lot of places to look.

You just have to ask.