Last week I introduced some people to the concept of ‘lateral thinking’ and several of them wanted some more examples. This is one. Many years ago in a small Indian village, a farmer had the misfortune of owing a large sum of money to a village moneylender. The moneylender, who was old and ugly, fancied the farmer’s beautiful daughter. So he proposed a bargain. He said he would forgo the farmer’s debt if he could marry his daughter.
Both the farmer and his daughter were horrified by the proposal. So the cunning money-lender suggested that they let providence decide the matter. He told them that he would put a black pebble and a white pebble into an empty money bag. Then the girl would have to pick one pebble from the bag. If she picked the black pebble, she would become his wife and her father’s debt would be forgiven. If she picked the white pebble she need not marry him and her father’s debt would still be forgiven.
If she refused to pick a pebble, her father would be thrown into jail. They were standing on a pebble strewn path in the farmer’s field. As they talked, the moneylender bent over to pick up two pebbles. As he picked them up, the sharp-eyed girl noticed that he had picked up two black pebbles and put them into the bag. He then asked the girl to pick a pebble from the bag. Now, imagine that you were standing in the field. What would you have done if you were the girl?
The phrase “lateral thinking” was coined by Edward de Bono to describe a process of problem-solving that is different from the linear or the “one-step to the next” process that we normally use. For instance, when the South American Indians first saw a man riding a horse they thought that it was some new creature with two arms and four legs.
What they did is what most of us do. We fall back on prior experiences and form quick but incorrect judgments by assuming too much, asking too few questions and using the challenge of exercising our minds by jumping to the wrong conclusions. So what about the poor girl?
Most people see only three options. The girl should refuse to take a pebble; she should know that there were two black pebbles in the bag and expose the money-lender as a cheat; the girl should pick a black pebble and sacrifice herself in order to save her father from his debt and imprisonment. Any of these options spell trouble.
What she did to avoid the obvious dangers of calling the man a cheat and causing her father to go to jail, is that she put her hand into the moneybag and drew out a pebble. Without looking at it, she fumbled and let it fall onto the pebble-strewn path where it immediately became lost among all the other pebbles.
”Oh, how clumsy of me!” she said. “But never mind, if you look into the bag for the one that is left, you will be able to tell which pebble I picked.” Since the remaining pebble is black, it must be assumed that she had picked the white one. And since the money-lender dared not admit his dishonesty, the girl changed what seemed an impossible situation into an extremely advantageous one.
Lateral thinking is the mental equivalent of walking, chewing gum, scratching your head and wiggling your ears at the same time. In lateral thinking you have to eliminate pre-suppositions, built in prejudices and inhibitions and try to solve problems in different, lateral or random ways.
Before I provide a sampling, there is one important piece of advice, and it comes from Sherlock Holmes in “The Sign of the Four”. He says, “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
A man rode into town on Friday. He stayed for three nights and then left on Friday. How come? The man’s horse was called Friday. This next one is a little less far-fetched. There were six apples in a basket and six girls in the room. Each girl took one apple, yet one apple remained in the basket. How come? The first five girls each took an apple. The sixth girl took the basket as well as the apple in it.
Here’s one that is easier to figure out. A kidnapper sent a ransom note. He prepared it carefully and ensured that it contained no fingerprints. Yet it was used to prove his guilt. How? The police were able to get a DNA trace from the saliva on the back of the stamp. This matched the suspect’s DNA. Sometimes you don’t need DNA evidence.
A man lay dead in a field. Next to him was a gun. One shot had been fired and because of that shot the man had died. Yet he had not been shot. In fact, there was no wound or mark on his body. How had he died? The man died through suffocation. He was covered by an avalanche of snow which had been started by the sound of his gunshot as he stood at the foot of a snow-covered mountain.
Here’s a final one for the road. What took 19 years to get into itself? The Guinness Book of Records, after 19 years of publication, became the second-best-selling book of all time and therefore got into itself.
* Tony Deyal was last seen complaining that he had called his wife from the office to say that he would be home at around eight o’ clock. He got in at two minutes past eight. His wife was extremely angry at his late arrival. What he didn’t say was he had promised to be home at 8:00p.m. He arrived the following morning at 8:02 a.m.
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