Sunday, March 06, 2005

Petals Around the Rose

My friend Bill passed this on the other day.

It’s a link to a math problem that was going around his office (a promising high-tech startup). Bill offered just one clue: “the longer it takes you to figure it out, the smarter you are.”

Tests such as these appeal to the competitive part of my nature. But I also think puzzle solving is an important entrepreneurial exercise, as it forces you to think in new ways and more deeply than usual.

In business, as in many parts of life, the first solution you think of may work, but it will not usually be the best or most efficient answer. So you need to believe that extra time spent studying the problem will result in new and possibly better solutions. So what better way to demonstrate that concept than by doing “impossible” puzzles that frustrate you the first or second time, but then succumb immediately when you approach them from a different perspective.

My oh-so-bright friends got this one the second time. I had to go away and then come back a couple of days later – at which point I changed my thinking, and found the right track at last.

SPOILER ALERT – Skip the next two paras if you haven’t tried the puzzle yet. But come back when you do.

Instead of trying to prove my math savvy by deciphering the relationships between the numbers, I paid attention to what I didn’t know – and got the solution within a minute. Which is a lesson well worth learning: focus on the questions you don’t understand. Don’t ignore what you don’t know.

Only when I solved the puzzle did I understand the clue, “the longer it takes you, the smarter you are.” We’ve all seen people try to over-analyze and outmuscle problems, when the true answer was really much easier. Lesson 2: There is virtue in simplicity.

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