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How to Think Out of the Box

To demonstrate what it means to think outside of the box, I want to show how creative minds do just that. First though, I have a relatively simple story problem for you. Those of you with decent math skills should get the correct solution easily.

Jack and Jill sleep in the same bed. Jack sleeps laying on his left side 80% of the time and on his right side 20% of the time. Jill sleeps on her right side 25% of the time and on her left side 75% of the time. If Jack sleeps on the right side of the bed (looking at the bed from the foot or bottom) what percentage of the time are Jack and Jill facing each other when sleeping?

Now, if we see this as a straight-forward math problem, it's simple. Being on the right side of the bed and laying on his left side 80% of the time, Jack has to be facing away from Jill 80% of the time, and towards her 20% of the time. At any given time there is a 75% chance that she is on her left side, facing him. Thus they are facing each other only 15% of the time (75% of 20%).

This will not necessarily be the answer we get from all intelligent people though. The explanation given is plain logic, but only if we immediately adopt certain assumptions, as we almost always do. Not everyone accepts the implicit assumptions made in life or in math problems, however. Lets consider how those who think out of the box might approach this.

In this example, we're assuming both sleep with their heads at the same end of the bed. It may seem a natural assumption, but it's not a necessary one. Take away that assumption and you have two other possible answers. What if Jack sleeps with his head toward the bottom of the bed? Then he is facing Jill (her body) 80% of the time, so they are facing each other 60% of the time (75% of 80%). If it is Jill that sleeps with her head at the bottom of the bed she is facing Jack only 25% of the time, and so they face each other only 5% of the time (20% of 25%).

Now, what if Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water, and... (poor joke)

We can even challenge the assumptions about what "facing each other" means, as silly as that might seem. Does it mean having the fronts of their bodies oriented towards each other, or is it more about the face. Jack might have his head tilted when on his right side, and actually have his face aimed at the foot of the bed. Of course if we assume shifting head positions we have no solution unless we do a study of the various positions and percentage of time each is taken.

Some who read this will suggest that it is obvious what the assumptions should be. These readers most likely all got the "correct" solution to the problem right off. They are also likely to make good accountants and math teachers, and probably always have their checkbooks balanced - nothing wrong with any of that.

On the other hand, there are those who regularly go beyond the "obvious" solutions to find the flaws in the presentation of the problem itself. They make a habit of challenging not only the assumptions of others, but their own as well. They are the "disrupters" in society. They may frustrate their teachers and peers, but they are the ones that help our ideas and technologies progress (think Albert Einstein or Richard Feynman or Bill Gates or Ghandi).

Now, if you are analytically gifted and tend to be like "Spock" from Star Trek, you can still learn to think out of the box. How? By purposely developing the habit of looking not just for a solution, but at the problem too. Make it a point to identify and challenge the assumptions we make.

You can start by finding the "correct" solution for the problem above, for example, based on the "natural" assumptions. But you can also at the same time see that what appears "normal" or "natural" is not always necessary. You can choose to look at the problem to see what assumptions are required for the first solution, and then challenge those. This won't help you in math class, by the way, but in the real world the best and most creative solutions often require you to get your thinking out of the box in this way.

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