Linear Versus Lateral Thinking

The MAN wants to go HOME, but he CAN’T because the MAN with the MASK is there.

I counsel men — mostly professionals — 8-12 hours a day, 6 days a week. These are guys between 20-something and 60-something. Myself an autistic trauma survivor with a backstory that reads like an Oprah Book Club pick, I coach from my truth and teach what I know; most importantly that meditation — the simple (or not so simple) practice of stillness — is a critical component of personal success.

My clients have a tendency to be highly self critical, having been conditioned from conception to equate achievement with self value. These are guys who don’t just show up to play, they’re here to win.

Yet these guys don’t demonstrate a winner’s mentality. They are measurers… in constant competition with the impossible standards they set for themselves to legitimize their right to be here. They are productivity addicts, constantly pushing to prove their competency through goal-setting and achievement; it’s always hoop-jump-biscuit with these men…. and enough is never enough.

One of the lessons they learn on my watch is that while the linear drive has its merits, do NOT underestimate the value of the lateral drift. Over-thinkers with engineer brains who think there is some calculus that can be applied to any situation for optimal success, they fail to appreciate the wisdom of ‘not-doing’. Of day-dreaming. Of zen. They don’t understand the value of observation without outcome-prediction, actionable option trees, and timely execution.

So as an experiment in this way of being, I offer them lateral thinking puzzles. Lateral thinking puzzles are situational snapshots in which only sparse information is given by the quizmaster, and the solver(s) must ask yes-or-no questions to determine the full picture. Case in point:

“The MAN wants to go HOME, but he CAN’T because the MAN with the MASK is there.”

An example dialog like the following typically occurs between the solver (A) and the quizmaster (B):

A: Is the man in danger?
B: No.

A: Is the man in the mask a burglar?
B: No.

A: Is the man with the mask in the man’s home?
B: No.

A: Does the man with the mask intend harm to the man?
B: No.

A: Do the men know each other?
B: No.

A: Is the mask a Halloween mask?
B: No.

A: Is the man with the mask going to hurt the man?
B: Again, no.

What happens is that the impetus to solve the puzzle causes the solver to make faulty inferences, his initial impressions of the situation affecting his trajectory, until he gets stuck in a frustrating feedback loop, trying in vain to make a horror movie out of something as innocuous as a baseball game.

The man is a runner on third base. The man with the mask is the catcher. The man wants to go home, but he can’t because the man with the (catcher’s) mask is there.

Those who excel at solving these puzzles are the ones who collect data, sit with it, collect more data, sit with it, and train themselves not to jump to conclusions based on limited evidence. Basically they balance linear and lateral thinking, productivity and stillness.

So the moral, if there is one, is that it’s never a bad idea to practice stillness. Don’t shame yourself for your lack of productivity, or for your intuitive inclination to do “nothing”. Sometimes “nothing” is the best option, and “something” — meaning literally “anything” — no so much.

– Dennis