William Liao

December 9, 2021

Staying with the problem long enough

“It’s not that I’m so smart, It’s just that I stay with problems longer.” — Albert Einstein

Around 1978, James Dyson came up with the idea of using cyclonic separation to build a better vacuum. 

Dyson would go on to build not a handful, not dozens, not hundreds, but thousands of vacuum prototypes — 5,127 to be exact — over the span of 15 years before finally releasing a commercially successful vacuum cleaner that, for the first time, didn’t have a bag and didn’t lose suction. 

While his engineering prowess no doubt played an important role in his innovation, there’s also something to be said about the exceptional level of commitment and tenacity it must have taken to spend 15 years — nearly 20% of the average male lifespan — figuring out how to build a better version of an everyday household cleaning device. 

And in case you were wondering the journey wasn’t all sunshine and roses. In a 2011 guest column that he wrote for Wired magazine, Dyson said that “by [prototype] 2,627, my wife and I were really counting our pennies. By [prototype] 3,727, my wife was giving art lessons for some extra cash…”

Thankfully, the journey can be rewarding with the right framing. Dyson later remarks in his column that “it wasn’t the final prototype that made the struggle worth it. The process bore the fruit. I just kept at it.” 

Where most aspiring problem-solvers quit, it’s always going to be the people who are willing to stay with the problem long enough that end up arriving at the solution.

Aptitude absolutely matters, but so too does a bullish — perhaps even foolish in the eyes of many at times — willingness to persist and learn.