We see what we expect to see

I’ve long believed that the constraints of the Aristotlean linear system of thinking we are taught in our schools create a tendency to exclude unexpected events, concepts, practices, thoughts and ideas.

A while back, I visited my friend, Father Tom, a Franciscan monk who was temporarily residing at St. Bonaventure University while waiting for his next mission assignment. As we talked about logic and our beliefs about thinking, he nonchalantly laid five pencils out on a table and asked “what’s this?” I had no idea what he meant, so he said “well, this is a five.” Then he picked up one of the pencils and laid it across the other four, and asked “what’s this?” I still didn’t know, so he said “this is a four.” I started to get the idea, and began making my own tentative guesses as he set up different configurations: “Is that a three?” “No, that’s actually a two.” The numbers were always between zero and five, which suggested that the answer was always equal to the number of pencils which were doing… something. (Touching the table? Pointing at another pencil? Orientation as vertical as opposed to horizontal, Touching another pencil?) But the longer the game went on the more random the answers seemed.

All my answers failed to support my theories. Then the monk randomly tossed the pencils down onto the table and let them lie wherever they fell, asking “What’s this?” Again, I was wrong. I made him set up some of the configurations I’d already seen, but, now the answers were different.

By that time I’d gathered enough evidence to convince me that the answer didn’t have anything to do with the pencils at all. Eventually I figured out the real secret: the “answer” to each configuration was simply equal to whatever number of fingers my friend the monk was quietly displaying with his “left” hand!

The lesson Father Tom taught me was always to approach a problem on its own terms. When he said “What’s this?” I should have looked to include everything he was doing, instead of excluding everything except the five pencils.


Michael Michalko is a best selling author of books about creative thinking. His most recent book is CREATIVE THINKERING: PUTTING YOUR IMAGINATION TO WORK. Visit www.creativethinking.net

One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Andrew Norris on November 16, 2011 at 5:15 am

    I have to say I wonder whether you are excluding my thoughts are ideas as comments I made about OWS. I love your books and respect you as a thinker, so just wondering why you have not approved the comments, yet are still posting up new blogs?


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