By Richard Bleil
Today, while sitting in a parking lot waiting for a business call that never came to pass, I watched as three children played. They were maybe three, give or take a year, playing very well with each other, two boys and a girl. The girl was sitting on a toy vehicle, clearly designed to be pushed by one or two other children, but it seemed to be stuck. I was not close enough to see what the problem was; it looked like maybe it got too close to the edge of the sidewalk and one of the tires was on the grass. Whatever the problem was, the boys had the typical male problem response; brute strength.
First one child pushed hard, but couldn’t budge the toy. Finally, after much effort, he gave up, and the second boy walked to the toy, and pushed as hard as he possibly good, again to no avail. When the second boy had given up, the girl used her brain, stood up, picked up the toy, turned it around, and placed it centered back on the sidewalk heading in the opposite direction.
At this point we could discuss all of the typical cliches; boys vs. one single girl; or brains vs. brawn. But, maybe, just maybe, we should discuss the issue of problem solving.
Some years ago, as director of a forensic lab, we had built a new forensic building. Moving the equipment, we needed an adapter for one of the instruments that utilized a couple of gases. Unless you’re Mick Jagger, in which case it used a gas, gas, gas.
You’re too young to understand that joke.
But, the point is, this was a specialized piece of equipment, and although I did check the local gas supply company, I knew they wouldn’t carry what I needed. Basically, I needed an adapter to connect a hose to a “female” nozzle. This means I needed an adapter that was “male” on one side, and “female” on the other.
I called a company that specializes in these instruments, who told me that they had what I needed, and sent the connector. But, when it arrived, it was the wrong one. I needed one that had a male side to connect to the female nozzle. I called them up, quite irate as we were under pressure to get the equipment up and running quickly before falling too far behind, and explained that the nozzle was “female”, and the nozzle they sent me had a female side. Did they send me the wrong one? Is there a coupler available so the female nozzle can attach to the female adapter?
That’s when they told me to turn it around.
Getting stuck on a thought is a funny thing. The most obvious solution can be staring us in the face, but if we already have a solution in our mind that we have convinced ourselves is the best, it’s nearly impossible to see the simple one.
The story comes of an underpass in Boston with a relatively low clearance, and a truck driver that was sure he had it, driving straight into it and getting truly well jammed. He couldn’t back out, emergency personnel showed up, and also failed to pull it out. A crowd began to gather as they discussed serious engineering solutions of cutting pieces out of the truck or out of the bridge when a little girl said to her mother, “why don’t they just let the air out of the tires?”
And, yes, it worked.
So the question becomes what to do if one finds oneself in this mental trap. You’ve been working hard to find the problem, you know the solution must be there, but you just can’t seem to get out of that one solution that you thought would be right, but just doesn’t work. The solution is quite simple…take a break.
The mind needs to periodically rest. If we start thinking too deeply, it is time to stop thinking about the problem for a time. A friend of mine was working on a math problem, he tells me, and just couldn’t figure out the solution. He took a break to make love with his then fiancee, and in the midst had the epiphany to solve the problem. He stopped what he was doing, returned to the problem, and solved it. It’s not terribly bright to stop making love to do homework, but I am happy to say that she is now his wife, so she must have forgiven him.
Isaac Asimov called it the “Eureka phenomena”. It’s a wonderful short story that I highly recommend wherein he makes the same suggestion I did, but, rather more eloquently than I have stated it. So, take a break. You’ll be amazed what you can do.