Thought Experiments And Thinking Differently

July 7, 2015

The following thought experiment is attributed to the German Gestalt psychologist Karl Dunker:

One morning, exactly at sunrise, a Buddhist monk began to climb a tall mountain. The narrow path, no more than a foot or two wide, spiraled around the mountain to a glittering temple at the summit. The monk ascended the path at a varying rate of speed, stopping many times along the way to rest and to eat the dried fruit he carried with him. He reached the temple shortly before sunset. After several days of fasting and meditation, he began his journey back along the same path, starting at sunrise and again walking at a varying speed with many stops along the way. His average speed descending was, of course, greater than his average climbing speed. Is there a spot along the path that the monk will occupy on both trips at precisely the same time of day?

Here’s the way to approach thinking about it:

If you try to logically reason this out or use a mathematical approach, you will conclude that it is unlikely for the monk to find himself on the same spot at the same time of day on two different occasions. Instead, visualize the monk walking up the hill, and at the same time imagine the same monk walking down the hill. The two figures must meet at some point in time regardless of their walking speed  or how often they stop. Whether the monk descends in two days or three days makes no difference; it all comes out to the same thing.

As always, it’s easy when you know how!

Applying this to business (or other) problems, the point is to try thinking about the issue from a variety of quite different viewpoints even though that may initially seem quite alien, strange or unproductive.

This situation reminded me of the time when I was an academic and one year there was quite a fuss over a (physics) exam question that had been set. You could work it out from first principles and it would have taken about 30 mins for an average student. This assumes no slips were made along the way (and the greater the number of steps the more likely that this is to happen).

However, by using a conservation principle, you could also work out the answer in about 5 mins! To do this this you needed to think a bit differently right from the start and not get trapped into immediately using the standard approach. Even though some spotted this, as the question was so ‘easy’ using this insight, they were then worried that they were misunderstanding the original question!

As you can imagine, this resulted in a lively discussion of what constituted a ‘fair’ exam question. In practice, it’s helpful to know how to do it both ways of course, as one often elucidates the other.

You can read about the topic of thought experiments in the original post by Michael Michalko here.

Imagination And Knowledge

June 23, 2015

An interesting and vivid analogy on the role of imagination in coming up with new ideas and approaches, from the blog of Michael Michalko:

Suppose you are watching a mime impersonating a man taking his dog out for a walk. The mime’s arm is outstretched as though holding the dog’s leash. As the mime’s arm is jerked back and forth, you “see” the dog straining at the leash to sniff this or that. The dog and the leash become the most real part of the scene, even though there is no dog or leash.

In the same way, when you make connections between your subject and something that is totally unrelated, your imagination fills in the gaps to create new ideas. It is this willingness to use your imagination to fill in the gaps that produces the unpredictable idea.

This is why Einstein claimed that imagination is more important than knowledge.

The Trials Of Leadership

June 17, 2015

Because of excellent reviews, last year I started reading a couple of books on D-Day and the Battle for Normandy eg here. However, even after just a few chapters, the complexity and uncertainty in nearly everything was both daunting and revealing (the famous ‘fog of war’). Directing and managing this must have been a nightmare as well as extraordinarily stressful.

However, especially in the popular media, Eisenhower (the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces) gave the impression of coping well, not just with the decision making but also with handling the powerful and often eccentric egos of the key players. I was curious how he did this and managed to keep sane at the same time!

So, I was interested to recently read (from the Economist):

‘The ultimate sin, for the Oprah generation, is to be repressed. Nonsense, says Mr Brooks. Dwight Eisenhower spent his life repressing his inner self, and it helped the Allies win the second world war. He “spent the nights staring at the ceiling, racked by insomnia and anxiety, drinking and smoking”. Yet “he put on a false front of confident ease and farm-boy garrulousness” to raise the troops’ morale. He was splendidly inauthentic. Later on, as president, he was willing to appear tongue-tied if it would help conceal his designs. Indeed, he was happy to let people think him stupid, which “is how we know he was not a New Yorker”.’

As an aside, in productivity books and articles, the so-called Eisenhower matrix or box (see below) is often cited:

Eisenhower MatrixPicture credit: here.

Starting From Success

June 12, 2015

Interesting little story found in a recent post by James Altucher on learning new skills:

Tony Robbins told me about when he was scared to death on his first major teaching job.

He had to teach a bunch of Marines how to improve their sharpshooting. “I had never shot a gun in my life,” he said.

He studied quite a bit from professionals but then he came up with a technique that resulted in the best scores of any sharpshooting class before then.

He brought the target closer.

He put it just five feet from them. They all shot bullseyes. Then he moved it back bit by bit until it was the standard distance.

They were still shooting bullseyes.

Goals And Balanced Conversations

June 10, 2015

I’ve been thinking once again about personal goals and opportunities. In this context I stumbled across this interesting analogy on the blog of Steve Pavlina:

I find goal setting extremely valuable, but even after doing it for about 15 years now, I’m still making new distinctions. When I set the right goal, it works wonders. But when I set the wrong goal, it just gets in my way. My understanding of the “right” goals are that they serve to expand my consciousness and cause me to stretch as opposed to tying me to the past or restricting my opportunities.

There are times in life when we need clear goals and other times when living goal-free is better. For example, when I started this web site, I set a lot of clear goals. Some of those, like setting traffic and income targets, really helped me stay focused. But after reaching the point of sustainable positive cashflow, I consciously decided to relax my goals a bit and spend a few months living goal-free to allow some new ideas to incubate. As I come out of this period, however, I’ll once again be returning to more focused goal-setting.

Proper goal-setting is like having a conversation. You need the right balance of talking and listening. If you talk all the time, you derail the conversation. If you listen all the time, you become a passive observer instead of an active participant. When you realize you’ve been talking too much, it’s time to spend more time listening, which is equivalent to goal-free living. But when you’ve been passive long enough, it’s time to take a more active role and start letting the universe know what you want.

The tricky part comes when both are going on at the same time, which in my case is quite common e.g. working to a goal, say a deadline for a complex project and then, perhaps later in the day, creatively exploring different ways forward (which may easily yield no immediate or obvious results as ideas need time to incubate). Admittedly you could regard this as a goal in itself but I think that is really semantics and, in a way, misses the point.

However, the insight above made me realise that it’s helpful to be simply fully aware of the mode you’re in and to judge results and progress accordingly.

It could also help understand why brainstorming sessions can often be unproductive. If participants have been busy on goal work and are then asked to move to more creative free-form work this could easily lead to conflicts. The best brainstorming sessions often involve a change of location, atmosphere etc to encourage this mode change.


May 1, 2015


I’m always surprised at what you can learn through casual remarks and asides.

I have the habit of taking out far more library books than I ever have the time to read. At the moment I’ve put them in three different piles on the floor of the living room, mainly to goad me to try them out! They’re a mix of fiction and non-fiction.

To reduce the reading list, I recently decided to return two (skimmed through but not read) to the library. After doing this, and then some browsing around, I found myself leaving with four additional books.

They were all fiction: Llosa, Isherwood, Mankell and Camilleri. I used to be a fan of Isherwood so I thought it would be fun to revisit, Llosa – well I’d always wanted to read one of his books (I had a Brazilian girlfriend at one time and she recommended him to me) and so on.

I mean, with so many temptations, how can you resist? So, overall, a net increase in books to read…

Anyway, whilst checking them out, I mentioned my quandary to the assistant and she responded with a single mysterious word “Tsundoku”. I then learnt that there was a Japanese word for this, how amazing!

Now I need to find out if there is a word for “regularly learning something quite surprising from casual asides” :-)

Picture credit: Reprinted from LOST IN TRANSLATION © 2014 by Ella Frances Sanders. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

Top 20 Reasons Startups Fail

March 30, 2015

Top 20 Reasons Startups fail

Based on the analysis mentioned here.


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