Claude Mulindi

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XY Questions

When faced with a problem you need help with, ask about the actual problem instead of your attempted solution.

In programming, the XY Problem is assuming that the issue lies with your proposed solution instead of faulty assumptions about the nature of the problem:

I'm guilty of asking lots of XY questions lately:
Trying to get stronger by asking about the latest supplements and gear instead of how to lift heavier weights and eat more.
Trying to make money by asking about shiny securities to invest in instead of how I can reduce my spending.

On the surface, this a cautionary tale about getting to the root of problems. But it also reveals deeper biases.

Why wouldn't the user just ask about X? Perhaps

  1. They won't admit they don't really understand how X works. This often reveals itself in the form "I know how to do __ , I just can't do it." In truth, you can't learn what you think you already know.
  2. They want solution Y to be true because it seems easy. Except in the long run, like a Rube Goldberg Machine, it results in a needlessly complicated solution to a simple task.

The XY problem can be avoided by a commitment to solving the real issue.

  1. Provide context for the questions you ask. It's okay (and encouraged) to offer solutions you've tried to diagnose your problem, but don't presuppose they're the right kind of solution and then doggedly try to troubleshoot them.
  2. Other times, the real solution might not be something we want to hear. Here, we must take a spoonful of humility, ignore the sunk costs, and recognize that the hard way is often the easy way.

Where in your life are you asking XY questions?