I was talking with a friend of mine the other day about her love life, her favorite topic of conversation. She’d broken up with yet another guy and was once again filled with remorse at her stupidity. “I’ve got to find a way to stop falling in love with jerks,” she said.
A fairly succinct statement of a problem, except that is not the problem. The last two guys she dated were perfectly nice men. While they probably did the occasional “jerky” thing, overall, they did not come close to that classification.
So what was the problem? My friend falls in love with musicians. In Nashville, that’s not a hard thing to do. She loves their creativity, their spontaniety, their disregard of societal rules. But once they become a couple, she starts thinking of their husband and/or father potential, and they start falling short. So she tries to turn them into accountants. She berates them for going on the road, for staying out late in bars to play music, for not making enough money.
These men never lied to her. They didn’t pretend to be accountants until she was enamored and then announce that they were really (gasp!) musicians.
So until she realizes what the real problem is (discovering a way to find accountants as sexy as musicians or to love people as they are), she is destined for unhappiness.
The first step in any research project is to define the task or the problem. Many beginning researchers make the mistake of starting too soon. They want to write a paper on depression, for example, and start web searching without a true sense of what they’re looking for. So even though they might care about depression in children, they end up trying to work in sources that have little to do with the problem they actually care about.
So whether writing a research paper or looking for the love of your life, defining the real task or problem is a very good first step.