Spot the Opportunity
A leading business school did a study that showed that its graduates did well at first, but in ten years, they were overtaken by a more streetwise, pragmatic group. The reason according to the professor who ran the study: “We taught them how to solve problems, not to recognize opportunities.”
Getting Away from the Problem
Archimedes, the third-century BC Greek mathematician, was asked to determine the purity of a gold crown suspected of being adulterated with silver by the crown’s goldsmith. Archimedes knew the weight per volume unit of gold, but since the crown was a holy object, he ruled out solutions such as melting it or hammering it into a measurable cube. After several frustrating weeks of not finding an answer, Archimedes decided to get away from the problem altogether by going to the public baths. There he watched absentmindedly while the water rose with the immersion of his body in the tub. Suddenly inspiration dawned: why not use the same immersion process with the crown? Because gold is denser than silver, he realized that the water would not rise as high for a solid gold crown as for one containing silver.
Update: Part of this is incorrect. A solid gold crown and one containing silver will displace the same amount of water. Because he knew the density of gold, Archimedes was able to compare the density of the crown to that of gold. This allowed him to determine if it was gold, silver, or some combination of the two. For more, see this explanation of calculating density using Archimedes’ water displacement here.
In other words, sometimes delaying action can be the best course of action. That’s because while you are waiting, you can gather more information about the most fruitful way to proceed.
For example, designer Christopher Williams tells a story about an architect who built a cluster of large office buildings that were set on a central green. When construction was completed, the landscape crew asked him where he wanted the pathways between the buildings.
“Not yet,” the architect said. “Just plant the grass solidly between the buildings.”
This was done, and by late summer pedestrians had worn paths across the lawn, connecting building to building. The paths turned in easy curves rather than right angles, and were sized according to traffic.
In the fall, the architect simply paved the pathways. Not only did the new pathways have a design beauty, they responded directly to user needs.
Moral: pause for a bit and let the important things catch up with you.
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(images posted with the permission of Roger Von Oech)