riddles

riddles - The Best Advice So Far

I was driving recently with my cousin’s son, Seth. He’s 19, but having lived with a mentally and physically ill mother until her recent death, there are some areas in which Seth is still quite “young.” Until now, he’s never paid a bill and did not know how to write a check. It’s been a steep learning curve. Yet I find most aspects of Seth’s greenness refreshing, to be honest. It’s as if he’s seeing much of the world for the first time.

As we drove between offices, settling yet more paperwork in the wake of his mother’s passing, Seth was checking social media from his phone. Somehow, he wound up coming across a riddle and read it to me. You may have heard it:

A doctor and a boy went fishing. The boy is the doctor’s son, but the doctor is not the boy’s father. How can this be?

After a mere few moments, Seth quirked his mouth quizzically and said, “That doesn’t make sense. It’s impossible. Do you get it?”

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m more about teaching a man to fish than handing him a fish. In fact, Chapter 21 of The Best Advice So Far has this central advice:

THE BEST ADVICE SO FAR: Asking the right kind
of questions works better than making statements.

There are, of course, times when a straightforward reply is best. In this case, however, with a young man who suddenly finds himself needing to approach life’s problems with a new level of independence, it seemed the process of solving the riddle might be more beneficial than simply impressing him with my own ability to arrive at the answer.

The Best Advice So Far: Asking the right kind of questions works better than making statements.

I glanced quickly at him out of the corner of my eye as he waited in expectation of my reply.

“Seth, you just told me that ‘it’s impossible’; but you also asked if I could solve it. You can’t believe both of those things at the same time: that it’s impossible to solve and that I might be able to solve it.”

I let that sit for a few seconds. “I guess you’re right,” he conceded sheepishly. “But I don’t see how it could be true.”

“You only spent about 5 seconds before you decided your own idea was right and that the riddle must be wrong. But many times in life — most times, in fact — the first perspective we have on something isn’t the right one. At least it’s not entirely right.”

“How’d you get so smart?” he asked.

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“I’ve lived a while and paid attention,” I said with a smirk and raised eyebrow, “which you can do just as well I can.” I wasn’t going to let him sidetrack me that easily. “So back to that riddle. First rule of problem-solving is this: assume you don’t have the whole picture at first.  Second rule: assume there are other perspectives you haven’t yet considered.”

Seth nodded slowly, his lips and eyes narrowed in contemplation. Then about 10 seconds later, he blurted, “Yeah, I still don’t get it.”

We both laughed.

“Do you already know the answer?” he asked.

“No, or if I do, I’ve forgotten it. The only assumption I make when faced with a riddle is that I’ll be able to solve it if I give it enough time and thought. I consider every word individually. Why was that word chosen? What other meanings could it have other than the obvious one?  Then I consider phrases and idioms. I form pictures for each different word or phrase or meaning. I switch those pictures around, even if they seem bizarre. But the fun of riddles is not knowing. I guess, in a way, you could say the fun of riddles is accepting that you’re likely wrong and will be wrong many times before stumbling by trial and error upon a perspective that finally works.”

Seth looked at me like a Floridian seeing snow for the first time. “I don’t think I know one other person who thinks the way you do,” he said with an incredulous shake of his head.

Well, through a process of “thinking out loud,” I showed Seth how I arrived at my answer (which I won’t tell you, if you’ve never heard it and want to figure it out yourself). This equally amazed Seth. Before I knew it, he’d hopped onto a riddle site on his phone and was peppering me with them, one after another. And in each case, I encouraged him to try solving them himself, reminding him of my “rules”:

1.  Assume your first instincts aren’t right.

2.  Remember that the fun of it all lies in accepting that you’ll likely be wrong for a while.

3.  Go into it believing that there are other valid perspectives that will pay off in the end.

I mean, let’s face it: “Hey, the chicken crossed the road to get to the other side!” probably wouldn’t have caught on, you know?

Similarly, how much fun would a crossword be if the answers were provided and you just copied them into the boxes? Or how about a jigsaw puzzle with the backs of the pieces numbered in order, top left to bottom right?

Knowing everything isn’t fun at all in these cases. In fact, it would downright ruin the experience, the joy of finding out. There would be no sense of discovery, no “Aha!” moments — just rote exercises being completed.

Really, what would be the point?

So why is it that, when it comes to people instead of puzzles, we so often hold tightly to the mindset that we “already have them figured out”?

Why do we get so squirmy and defensive at the notion that we might not be right, or that there may be valid perspectives other than our own?

Why can’t we be comfortable with accepting that we’ll probably be wrong for a while — maybe even a long while — before we have the “Aha!” moments that allow us to see someone as they really are?

Why do we feel so threatened by the process of interpersonal discovery, choosing to trade it in for the rote exercise of piecing together our foregone conclusions in numbered little rows?

Not only in the world of riddles, but in all areas of modern problem solving — science, medicine, technology — it is not only acceptable but expected that one maintain an open mind, flexibility of thought, and a willingness to adapt. So how did changing one’s mind about people or ideas as we make our way through life come to be seen as a weakness instead of the strength it really is?

The Best Advice So Far: How did changing one's mind about people or ideas come to be seen as a weakness instead of the strength it really is?

Let’s look at my “riddle rules” one more time:

1.  Assume your first instincts aren’t right.

2.  Remember that the fun of it all lies in accepting that you’ll likely be wrong for a while.

3.  Go into it believing that there are other valid perspectives that will pay off in the end.

I can’t help but wonder what fun and wonderful surprises we might invite into our lives if we practiced these “rules,” not only with riddles but with relationships.

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