A Problem Set I’ll Never Forget: My Journey to Creative Thinking

Problem 5 on my problem set was about distributing a pile of stones across vertices of a pentagon.
Problem 5 on my problem set was about distributing a pile of stones across vertices of a pentagon.

Creativity is something I’ve struggled with my entire life. Being the son of two architects, I was always expected to develop some sort of creative talent – even at a young age. Sadly, this talent never manifested itself, especially not in building design (I figured that out when my 2nd grade classmates labeled my gingerbread house as the ‘ugliest’ at a holiday party).

I learned very early in my life that I was more of an analytical and methodological person. While I wasn’t creative, I could follow a set of clear-cut instructions. I liked classes like math where everything had definitive answers. I enjoyed playing sports like tennis where mastery of a specific set of techniques defines what it means to be a good player. But when given the freedom to be creative, I used to panic. The music I composed for my piano class sounded awful. My dancing skills were subpar let alone my ability to choreograph. And I couldn’t write creatively no matter how hard I tried.

Then one day in high school, my entire perspective changed. During fall semester of my junior year, I was working on a problem set for a math class. It was a surprisingly short assignment: only five questions long, which I was pretty pleased about. The first four problems were simple – they were more or less straightforward applications of the methods my teacher had gone through in class. But the fifth question puzzled me. It was harder than any other homework problem I had ever seen. Every time I thought I had figured it out, I would realize that my solution didn’t always hold, or that I had forgotten to account for one of restrictions outlined in the problem. I had never felt so confused in math class. It bothered me to the point where I worked furiously on the problem for the entire week before the due date, shunning all forms of social interaction and skipping several meals.

At 4 A.M. the night before the assignment was due, I had fifty pieces of paper in a giant heap on my bed, eraser shavings covering my entire desk, and an uncountable number of computer programs on my laptop screen. I only stopped working when I realized that I couldn’t even type without being scorched by computer heat. The next morning, I dragged myself to class, feeling terrible about not being able to solve the problem. For the purpose of partial credit, I had selectively included a fraction of the 50-page novel I had written, but didn’t expect to do particularly well.

The next week when I got my homework back, I was astounded to find a 15/15 at the top of my page. Had I unknowingly solved it? Did my teacher make a mistake? My teacher sensed my confusion and revealed to me after class that the problem was actually an unsolved research problem in mathematics. No one in the world knew the answer to the problem. And while I certainly hadn’t solved it, the progress I had made over the past week was commendable in his eyes.

It was that day that I first conquered my fear of creativity, opening my eyes to the world of research where creativity came in the form of pushing oneself to search for answers in different ways. The idea of resolving the world’s unsolved issues satisfied me in a way that completing a problem set didn’t. Inadvertently, I discovered that my prior beliefs about research and creativity were entirely misplaced because I had never really put effort into understanding what research was about. That’s all it took for me to get involved in research – appreciating the fact that I had to step outside of my comfort zone. My initial experience with creativity  has led me to try my hand at a variety of things from dancing to DJ’ing – things I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing years ago. Looking back, I owe a lot to Problem 5 of that assignment. It has made me the avid researcher I am today.

Kavi Jain, Engineering Correspondent