Your Words Determine your Thoughts



Change your words to get a different perspective on your problem.

Words and chains of words that we use in framing a problem play a significant role in the way we approach problems. Consider the following problem: Water lilies double in area every twenty-four hours. On the first day of summer, there is one water lily on the lake. Sixty days later, the lake is completely covered with water lilies. On which day is the lake half covered?

The words "double," "twenty-four," "one," "on which day," and "sixty" coax most people to divide the sixty days by two and propose the thirtieth day as the solution, but since the lilies increase in area geometrically, this is incorrect. The lilies cover half the pond on the next-to-last day. The word structure of the problem influences us to come up with the incorrect answer.
Next, see if you can cross out six letters to make a single word out of the following (the answer is at the end):


The important thing is not to persist with one way of looking at problems. Try to come up with different ways to look at them. When Richard Feynman, the Nobel Laureate physicist, was "stuck" with a problem, he would look at it in a different way. If one way didn't work, he would switch to another. Whatever came up, he would always find another way to look at it.

REPHRASE THE PROBLEM IN YOUR OWN WORDS. Richard Feynman once reviewed his children's school books. One book began with pictures of a mechanical wind-up dog, a real dog, and a motorcycle, and for each the same question: "What makes it move?" The proposed answer--"Energy makes it move"-- enraged him.

That was tautology, he argued--empty definition. Feynman, having made a career of understanding the deep abstractions of energy, said it would be better to begin a science course by taking apart a toy dog, revealing the cleverness of the gears and ratchets. To tell a first-grader that "energy makes it move" would be no more helpful, he said, than saying "God makes it move" or "moveability" makes it move. He proposed teaching students how to rephrase what they learn in their own language without using definitions. For instance, without using the word energy, tell me what you know now about the dog's motion.

Other standard explanations were just as hollow to Feynman. When someone told him that friction makes shoe leather wear out, his response was "Shoe leather wears out because it rubs against the sidewalk and the little notches and bumps on the sidewalk grab pieces and pull them off." That is knowledge. To simply say, "It is because of friction," is sad, because it is empty definition.

Always try to rephrase the problem in your words without using definitions. In another famous Feynman example, he was working with NASA engineers on a serious problem and they kept defining the problem as a "pressure-induced vorticity oscillatory wa-wa or something." After considerable time and discussion had passed, a confused Feynman finally asked them if they were trying to describe a whistle? To his amazement they were. The problem they were trying to communicate to him exhibited the characteristics of a simple whistle. Once he understood what they were trying to do, he solved it instantly.

CHANGE THE WORDS. For every word a person uses, psychologists say there is a mediating response which provides the meaning of that concept for that individual. Just what the mediating responses are for all words is not known. Many times they may not be responses in the usual sense but all provide meaning of that concept for that individual. When you change the words in your problem statement, you initiate an unobservable process in your mind that may lead to a perspective.

A few years back, Toyota asked employees for ideas on how they could become more productive. They received few suggestions. They reworded the question to: "How can you make your job easier?" They were inundated with ideas. Even tiny changes can lead to unpredictable, cataclysmic results. In a sentence, one can randomly change a single letter and alter the way every other word is used."The kids are flying planes" becomes "The lids are flying planes."

Examine your problem statement, identify the key words, and change them five to ten times to see what results. One of the easiest words to change is the verb. Suppose you want to increase sales. Look at the changing perspectives as the verb is changed in the following:
In what ways might I increase sales?
In what ways might I attract sales?
In what ways might I develop sales?
In what ways might I extend sales?
In what ways might I repeat sales?
In what ways might I keep sales?
Magnify sales? Restore sales? Target sales? Inspire sales? Cycle sales? Encourage sales? Grow sales? Copy sales? Complement sales? Acquire sales? Vary sales? Spotlight sales? Motivate sales? Prepare sales? Renew sales? Force sales? Organize sales? And so on.

(ANSWER: Most people try to cross out six letters and fail to solve it. If, instead, you framed it "In what ways might I cross out six letters to form a common word?" you will likely find the solution which is to literally cross out the letters S, I, X, L, E, T, T, and so on, which leaves you with a single word: CREATE.)
Michael Michalko is the author of the highly acclaimed Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius; ThinkPak: A Brainstorming Card Deck and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work.

Tags: brain, creative, creative thinking, creativity, imagination, philosophy, psychology, thinking, work

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