In the graphic above, 9 toothpicks are arranged to form a 100. Can you change 100 to form the word CAT by altering the position of just 2 toothpicks? Take a few moments and see if you can solve it.
One of the many ways in which our mind attempts to make life easier is to solve the first impression of the problem that it encounters. Like our first impressions of people, our initial perspective on problems and situations are apt to be narrow and superficial. We see no more than we’ve been conditioned to see–and stereotyped notions block clear vision and crowd out imagination. This happens without any alarms sounding, so we never realize it’s occurring.
Once we have settled on a perspective, we close off but one line of thought. Certain kinds of ideas occur to us, but only those kinds and no others. What if the crippled man who invented the motorized cart had defined his problem as: “How to occupy my time while lying in bed?” rather than “How to get out of bed and move around the house?”
Have you ever looked closely at the wheels on a railroad train? They are flanged. That is, they have a lip on the inside to prevent them from sliding off the track. Originally train wheels were not flanged–instead, the railroad tracks were. Because the problem of railroad safety had been expressed as: “How can the tracks be made safer for trains to ride on?” hundreds of thousands of miles of track were manufactured with an unnecessary steel lip. Only when the problem was redefined as: “How can the wheels be made to secure the track more securely?” was the flanged wheel invented.
Leonardo Da Vinci believed that to gain knowledge about the form of problems, you began by learning how to restructure it to see it in many different ways. He felt the first way he looked at a problem was too biased toward his usual way of seeing things. He would restructure his problem by looking at it from one perspective and move to another perspective and still another. With each move, his understanding would deepen and he would begin to understand the essence of the problem. Leonardo called this thinking strategy saper vedere or “knowing how to see.”
To start with, it’s helpful to coin problems in a particular way. Write the problems you want to solve as a definite question. Use the phrase “In what ways might I…?” to start a problem statement. Using this phrase instead of simply asking “how” will psychologically influence you to look for alternative ways.
When we first look at our problem, we read it the way we’re taught to read figures left to right. It can’t be solved this way moving just 2 sticks. In what ways might you look at the problem? One other way is to visualize the figure as being upside down read the figure from right to left.
The trick is that the word CAT will be upside down after you solve the puzzle. Simply take the toothpick that is the left side of the second zero, and place it horizontally and centered at the bottom of the 1. Then move the toothpick at the top of the first zero halfway toward the bottom.
Now turn it upside down.
Genius often comes from finding a new perspective of a problem by restructuring it in some way. 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. Feynman would do something in ten minutes that would take the average physicist a year because he had a lot of ways to represent his problem.