We are not taught how to approach problems on their own terms. One of the many ways in which we have become cognitively lazy is to accept our initial impression of the problem that it encounters. Once we settle on an initial perspective we don’t seek alternative ways of looking at the problem. Like our first impressions of people, our initial perspective on problems and situations are apt to be narrow and superficial. We see no more than we expect to see based on our past experiences in life, education and work.
With productive thinking, one generates as many alternative approaches as one can. You consider the least obvious as well as the most likely approaches. It is the willingness to explore all approaches that is important, even after one has found a promising one. Einstein was once asked what the difference was between him and the average person. He said that if you asked the average person to find a needle in the haystack, the person would stop when he or she found a needle. He, on the other hand, would tear through the entire haystack looking for all the possible needles.
Once we have settled on a perspective, we close off but one line of thought. Years ago at St. Bonaventure University, Father Tom, a Franciscan monk, nonchalantly laid five pencils out on a table and asked “what’s this?” I had no idea what he meant, so he said “well, this is a five.” Then he picked up one of the pencils and laid it across the other four, and asked “what’s this?” I still didn’t know, so he said “this is a four.” I started to get the idea, and began making my own tentative guesses as he set up different configurations: “Is that a three?” “No, that’s actually a two.” The numbers were always between zero and five, which suggested that the answer was always equal to the number of pencils which were doing… something. (Touching the table? Pointing at another pencil? Touching another pencil?) But the longer the game went on, the more random the answers seemed.
All my answers failed to support my theories. Then the monk randomly tossed the pencils down onto the table and let them lie wherever they fell, asking “what’s this?” Again, I was wrong. I made him set up some of the configurations I had already seen, but, now the answers were different. Finally, the monk told me the secret. The answer didn’t have anything to do with the pencils at all. The answer to each configuration was simply equal to whatever number of fingers my friend the monk was quietly displaying with his left hand!
The lesson Father Tom taught me was always to approach a problem on its own terms. When he said “What’s this?” I should have looked to include everything he was doing, instead of excluding everything except the five pencils. Most of us look at a scene rather than look into it.
To test your ability to approach problems on their own terms read the following article at the link below and see how successful you are in solving the nine-not puzzle. Go to: