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Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986

Concepts are general ideas about things. They are mental representations we use to understand the world around us. Concepts represent groups of related ideas that are organized around a main theme. One example is how the concept of gravity includes physics, theory, math, unseen forces of attraction, general relativity, and more. Stanford University’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy says concepts are the building blocks of thoughts.

Concepts within concepts

Below are six categories of concepts, each with three sub-concepts as examples. What ideas and mental images come to mind as you read each of them?

  • Math (Geometry, algebra, statistics.)
  • Science (Gravity, waves, genetics.)
  • Art (Proportion, harmony, aesthetics.)
  • Philosophy (Introspection, common sense, the Golden Rule.)
  • Social (Identity, justice, norms.)
  • Business (Big box, market segmentation, customer service.)

Concepts are formed from components that overlap

What do these four words describe? Tail, fur, teeth, four legs.

You may have visualized a cat, dog, mouse, or the Tasmanian Devil, but we can’t say because a critical part is missing — a piece of information that clearly defines the concept and separates it from others.

Let’s add another piece of information to “tail, fur, teeth, four legs”: bark.

Most of us think this is a dog because adding the feature “bark” defines the concept “dog.” But bark doesn’t automatically define dog, because “bark” is also the outer coating of a tree, a three-masted sailing ship, and what you do to your shin when you bang it into the coffee table.

Now consider these: Feathers, beak, eggs, fly. 

This is a bird, right? It can’t be a duck because they have bills, not beaks. I first pictured a chicken, but we’d need to add another concept to get there. How about feathers, beak, eggs, fly, KFC? Or change KFC to Thanksgiving and get turkeys.

When you get to the end of this sentence, please close your biological eyes and use your mind’s eye to picture a CHAIR.

The one most people think of has four legs, a seat, and a back. Some of us saw plain wooden ones while others saw office chairs, rocking chairs, folding lawn chairs, beanbag chairs, Adirondack chairs, and electric chairs. Despite the differences in type, style, materials, and intended use, all our examples would have some sense of an abstract notion of “chairness,” the essence of what it means to be a chair. 

Just as words are combined into sentences and sentences into paragraphs, concepts are built from collections of attributes.

Think of the concept “book.” Combine this concept with another, like “reading,” then another, like “library.” Now you have three related concepts: “Book,” “reading,” and “library.” Taken together, what other concepts do they suggest?

Here are four that readily come to mind: “studying,”“education,”“university,” and “knowledge.” These are much more intricate concepts than birds, dogs, and chairs. In order to understand the meaning of complex concepts, we need to take a closer look at the component concepts they build on.

Which leads us to problem-solving

We can guess and we can flip a coin, but what we usually do is use some sort of method. Most methods and schools of thought agree all good problem-solving goes like this:

  • Recognize a problem exists. 
  • Define the problem.
  • Break down the problem into smaller problems. 
  • Solve the smaller problems one-by-one on the way to solving the larger problem.

There are hundreds of problem-solving strategies available to us, but most of us use the same ones over and over again

Here are the three most common strategies:
  • Trial and error is very popular among those who remain unaware of more sophisticated strategies. It’s used most often in situations lacking a clear definition of the problem. Because it’s just guessing, it’s very inefficient.
  • Working backward begins with the desired outcome and tries to figure out the steps needed to get there. Some of you will recognize this as related to reverse engineering, the process of taking something apart and putting it back together again in order to figure out how it is built.
  • Brainstorming involves coming up with as many possible solutions as we can without editing or evaluating them in any way, no matter how implausible, unfeasible, or ridiculous they may seem. Real brainstorming (group exercises led by people who know what they’re doing) involves coming up with as many possible solutions as we can without editing or evaluating them in any way, no matter how ridiculous or implausible they may seem.

Please do not ever confuse what most organizations call brainstorming with real brainstorming sessions led by a pro

“Brainstorming” in most organizations is actually an undisciplined process where people start with solutions without adequately defining the problem or the objectives. The result is a disorganized group of people pushing for their own pet projects and preferred notions, and the inevitable people lining up to agree with boss. Harvard Business Review says fifty years of scientific research shows that groups using traditional brainstorming techniques come up with fewer ideas – and fewer good ideas – than having people brainstorm individually.

Skilled problem solvers agree the toughest challenge is figuring out what the real problem is, and not just the apparent ones

Do a poor job with this and all else will fail. They also agree there are other things we can do, too, including trying different approaches, testing our assumptions, not jumping to conclusions, documenting everything, and using a qualified facilitator.


When I typed <how many types of chairs>, here’s what I got, in sequence: 23, 37, 9, 40, 32, 20, 59, 26, 50. The 50 didn’t just say chairs, it said “50 Iconic Chair Designs You Should Know.”

That was the headline at HouseBeautiful. Such nonsense reminds me of how the Chicago Tribune says iconic is the most meaningless word in the world, HuffPost is so sick of it they can’t take any more, and after an internal review found the word repeated 194 times in the past month’s broadcast, NPR asked us to agree that not every interesting thing is iconic.

Well-informed folk know that the word iconic really means widely-known, very famous, and epitomizing an era or a style. Interior decorators and those whose lives are centered on seating for one will be able to split hairs on all 50 iconic-ish chairs, but I don’t think most people can name anywhere near that many.

Essay question

This article is about concepts and problem-solving. Summarize in just a few paragraphs how they work together.

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