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How to Eat an Elephant


Many years ago I worked with an engineer whose favorite aphorism was:

“How do you eat an elephant?”

“One bite at a time!”

My engineer friend thought this was the most important and profound thing he had learned in his entire engineering education, and I think he might be right.

Most of the time we take the adage to mean that in order to solve a big problem, you must first break it down into smaller pieces, smaller problems. 

For instance, think of NASA engineers in the 60s:

  1. Goal: Put a human on the moon.
  2. So, we’ll need a big rocket.
  3. So, we’ll need a huge rocket engine and nozzle.
  4. So, we’ll need a lightweight metal casting that can withstand the necessary force.
  5. So, we’ll need a mineral ore that can be refined into a metal that withstands the high temperatures.
  6. And so on…

And of course, this problem has thousands of similar branches. This is the big lesson of engineering, and it is useful whether you are writing a book, building your dream house, building a scalable web app, or hitchhiking around the world.

But there is another view of the saying. An important part of the elephant adage is that we can use something like the contrapositive of the statement:

“If your bite is too big, you can’t eat an elephant!”

Or, rephrasing: “If you don’t know how to solve a problem, or perhaps even where to start, it means that you have taken too big of a bite! Take a smaller bite and start again.”

This is wonderful! If I don’t know how to solve a problem, it doesn’t mean that I’m not smart, or that I don’t know the trick, it just means I haven’t broken it down into small enough pieces (bites)! The last step of every problem should be one that feels like “oh yeah, I can do that!” And if you break down a big, difficult problem into enough small pieces, every step should feel like that. Going back to the 60s moonshot problems, in the end every piece of the huge puzzle was something that we already knew how to solve… “Oh yeah, we can do that!”

This is a great lesson for all students. A project or problem that seems hard is only hard because we’re trying to take too big a bite of the elephant. Take a breath, slow down, break off a small piece, finish it off, repeat, and continue.

Don’t forget the elephant!


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