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  May 25, 2012
A Perplexing Problem...


"How often have I said to you, that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?"

~Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Watson

When I was a bit younger, our family would often go camping in the local mountains. At night, we’d sit around a smoky campfire drinking hot beverages, singing camp songs, and telling ghost stories. One of my favorite activities was asking a particularly difficult riddle to the group to see if they could formulate an answer.

One of my favorite riddles was the following:

A man goes home. There he finds two masked men. One of the masked men yells something at the top of his lungs. The man who just came home, smiles and walks away from both men, very happy. What just happened?

A riddle like this provides a person with a unique opportunity to practice lateral thinking as opposed to straight forward thinking.

There are many things that we do in life that don’t really require lateral thinking. These actions and decisions are relatively straight forward.

For example, if you have a leaky faucet, experience (or a handyman’s manual) will dictate that you should replace a washer to stop the leak. There isn’t much of a decision to make other than to perhaps consider installing a new faucet instead of repairing the old one.

However, there are many times in life, we face a difficult decision. It’s a decision that requires much thought and consideration before coming to a conclusion. This is when lateral thinking is best practiced.

Lateral thinking combines the collection of relevant facts with that of plausible alternatives to develop unique and creative solutions to seemingly very complex problems.

The first step in the decision making process is to examine all of the relevant facts. There are two important words to consider..."relevant" and "facts".

To be relevant, they must actually matter in this particular decision.

If you are considering purchasing a home in Los Angeles, then the weather in New York has no bearing on this decision. It isn’t relevant in this instance.

However if you are planning to purchase a vintage car in Los Angeles that originally was driven in New York, then consideration of the weather might actually be very relevant due to the potential of salt corrosion to the undercarriage of the car.

The second word "fact" is just that...a fact. It is not an opinion. It is not a hypothesis. It is not a theory, supposition, preconceived notion, bias, or guesswork. A fact is a fact.

The car is red. The car has a manual transmission. The car is equipped with power windows. These are all facts.

The car is quiet. The car is fuel efficient. The car is comfortable. These are all opinions and are relative to a predefined standard.

One might argue that the vintage car is quiet, fuel-efficient, and comfortable when compared to a diesel 18-wheel big-rig truck or a top-fuel dragster but it may not be quiet, fuel-efficient, and comfortable when compared to a modern hybrid luxury sedan.

Relevant facts help us to separate what is and what is not important in the decision process.

The second step in the decision making process is to examine all of the available alternatives before coming to a conclusion.

Some people find the first possible solution and begin to act using just that one alternative. However, sometimes the first alternative may not be the best solution to our problem.

Consider for a moment the following square:



If I ask you to divide the square into 4 equal parts in as many ways as possible, how many alternatives can you come up with?

If you are a member of the majority, you will immediately choose the most obvious method in which to divide the squares as shown in figures 1 & 2. 

Simple Solutions

If you happen to be a bit more unconventional you may divide the squares into figures 3 & 4.

Complex Solutions 

Finding additional alternatives now gets a bit more difficult, so you conclude that perhaps there may be only 4 ways to divide the square into 4 equal parts and no more.

However, I’m here to tell you that there are actually two methods that will result in an infinite amount of possible solutions not just the most obvious 4 as shown above.

The solution to finding the first set of alternatives is to consider figures 1 or 2 above. Simply rotate the two straight lines around the center intersection point A...giving you an infinite amount of alternative solutions (making each adjustment smaller and smaller).
Another method to create infinite solutions to the problem is to start with figure 3 and move points B and C equally from the respective top and bottom.

Alternative Boxes

Better solutions are derived from having a larger pool of possible solutions in which to choose from.

Lateral thinking forces us to examine the relevant facts and create several plausible alternatives to find an uncommon solution to difficult problems.

Thinking about our riddle...

A man went home...was this a home as in a person’s house...or was it another type of home?

There were men there when the man arrived...who were they...and why were they there?

The men wore masks...what type of masks...were they rubber Halloween masks or a different type mask?

One of the men yelled something...what did he say...why did he say it...and why did it make the man arriving home smile and happily walk away?

The solution to the problem is simple once we examine all of the relevant facts and possible alternatives.

All of life’s problems are not necessarily riddles told around the campfire but they can cause one to take a moment to think a while.

The better we can train our minds to think laterally rather than to think just straight forward, the better we will become at solving complex problems that do matter greatly.  It will helps us in the creative process to develop new ideas and assist us create new, unthought of, alternatives in which to consider.

The man was actually on third base. When the ball was hit, he went home where he encountered two masked men...the catcher and the umpire. The umpire yelled "SAFE!!"...upon hearing this, the man who just scored, smiled and walked away...

Thank you for your unwavering support of OptiFuse where we encourage our team, our customers, and our friends to spend a little part of their day simply thinking.

Jim Kalb

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Rest and Relaxation...

Life in the Big City...

Quality Not Quantity...

Always Be Closing...

Grow Up and Act Your Age...

A Discriminating Taste...

The Art of Happiness...


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