Does Anyone Have a Pen?

I try to look at problems at the right level of abstraction. Here’s my illustration of why I think that’s important.

You’re in a group of people and someone asks: “Hey, does anyone here have a pen?”

What they are likely really asking is “does anyone have something to write with” because most of time a pencil would also be ok. Obviously there are exceptions — if they are signing a legal document. But most of the time people just idiomatically ask for a pen regardless of whether there is a strict requirement for a pen and not a pencil.

“Does anyone have something to write with” opens up the solution space and admits pencils, markers, crayons, and maybe even a lump of coal (lol) as possible answers. In contrast, “does anyone have a pen” presupposes the type of the solution within the question itself.

Go up a level of abstraction in your questions and thinking. Maybe go up multiple levels; even “does anyone have something to write with” could be too specific. Need to remember where you parked your car at the airport? You could write it down in a notebook. Or you could take a picture of the lot location with your phone. But maybe your phone is out of battery so you can’t … prompting you to ask a stranger to borrow something to write with. If whoever you are asking doesn’t have a pen but has a phone they could still help you (let’s ignore some privacy concerns for this illustration). They could take the picture with their phone and send it to you (to receive when you charge back up). Going up another level of abstraction to “how can I remember this” instead of “anyone have something to write with” admits even more potential solutions into the equation. At least we can think about them even if in this case we might decide not to share our phone number with a stranger.

Go as high up the abstraction chain as you can. That’s where all the good ideas come from.

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