A Creative Mental Exercise
And A Reporter's Tool
By MICHAEL SCHENKLER
It all began a month ago when I stopped by
an editorial meeting. I realized, listening to some of the new young reporters, that they
need to expand their problem solving and information gathering skills. They need to
acquire an ability to look at things in a slightly off center manner so that they might
come up with an angle to the story that is not what everyone expects.
You cant take a press release from an
elected official, call for a quote and get an exciting story. You have to ask, "What
dont they want me to know?" "Would this have happened without the elected
official claiming credit?" "Is this the best solution for the community?"
"Is there more to the picture than meets the eye?"
The reader our readers have a
right to know the whole story; not just what "they" want to let you know.
Therefore, reporters must be trained to think outside the traditional box. They must come
up with approaches to problems that are not the norm.
It is my version of "lateral
thinking," a term coined by Edward de Bono to denote a problem-solving style
that involves looking at the given situation from unexpected angles. Sometimes a problem
seems difficult or insoluble because our assumptions about it are wrong.
Lateral thinking is about moving sideways
when working on a problem to try different perceptions, different concepts and different
points of entry. The term covers a variety of methods including provocations to get us out
of the usual line of thought.
For example: Granny is sitting knitting and
three-year-old Susan is upsetting Granny by playing with the wool. One parent suggests
putting Susan into the playpen. The other parent suggests it might be a better idea to put
Granny in the playpen to protect her from Susan. A lateral answer!
Lateral Thinking is the ability to add a
slight "twist" to the pattern of logical thinking to produce an unexpected
Lateral Inspirational Thinking is when you
suddenly leap from one line of logical thinking to another. . . unexpectedly!
. . .as in the punch-line of a joke!
To me, the best way to visualize lateral
thinking is by picturing an optical illusion. There can be two ways to view something. Or
perhaps the picture doesnt make sense. But sometimes, when you look at things one
way, you are sure of what you see. With lateral thinking, a different approach may make a
different image appear as plain as the nose on ones face.
A classic example:
A father and his son are involved in a car
accident, as a result of which the son is rushed to hospital for emergency surgery. The
surgeon looks at him and says "I cant operate on him, hes my son."
Simple, the surgeon is a woman
the boys mother.
To solve these puzzles youll need to
check your assumptions, especially about who, what, when, where, and why?
Some wont yield to that approach, and
demand a flash of inspiration, such as:
A landlord is threatening to evict a father
and his beautiful young daughter, unless she agrees to marry him. In a false gesture of
sincerity, he offers her an opportunity for her and her father to remain in the house,
without marrying him. He has a silk bag in which he says he has placed a white and a black
stone from the footpath on which theyre standing. If she picks the white stone from
the bag, without looking, she wins; if she picks the black, she loses. However, the young
girl saw him place two black stones in the bag. She cant expose him in front of the
witnesses without angering him and making things worse. How does the clever girl win?
The only way we can figure this one is
that she picks a stone and immediately drops it on the footpath among other stones. Then
she exclaims that the color of her stone can be told by looking in the bag to see what
color stone remains.
Ingenious? Or just a good case of lateral
So, be prepared to think outside the box
for these classic lateral thinking puzzles.
Lateral Thinking is like an optical illusion of the mind.
A man is replacing a wheel on his car, when
he accidentally drops the four nuts used to hold the wheel on the car and they fall into a
deep drain, irretrievably lost. A passing girl offers him a solution which enables him to
drive home. What is it?
Who said, "Keep it simple
stupid?" Use one nut from each of the other three wheels.
Trouble with Sons
A woman had two sons who were born on the
same hour of the same day of the same year. But they were not twins. How could this be so?
No, dont get carried away with
test tube science its a lot simpler if you think laterally. There was another
baby they are triplets or quadruplets or whatever.
The Coal, Carrot and Scarf
Five pieces of coal, a carrot and a scarf
are lying on the lawn. Nobody put them on the lawn but there is a perfectly logical reason
why they should be there. What is it?
The snowman had apparently melted.
Its not so tough. Watch out for change of state (gas, liquid, solid) puzzles.
A man is found dead hanging from a rope
around his neck in the center of a room with no furniture. A small puddle is on the floor
below him. He had no apparent way of hanging himself but the police declared it a suicide.
Another change of state the
puddle is what remains of the block of ice on which he stood.
The Man in the Elevator
A man lives on the tenth floor of a
building. Every day he takes the elevator to go down to the ground floor to go to work or
to go shopping. When he returns he takes the elevator to the seventh floor and walks up
the stairs to reach his apartment on the tenth floor. He hates walking, so why does he do
This is probably the best known and most
celebrated of all lateral thinking puzzles. It is a true classic. Although there are many
possible solutions, this one is right on target.
The man is a midget and cant reach
higher than the seventh floor.
Lift the Bridge?
A truck is stuck at a road under a bridge.
Its just an inch or so too high to pass under. Any other route, avoiding the bridge,
would add many hours to the journey. A young boy comes along and saves the day. How?
He lets a little air out of the tires.
A man rode into town on Friday. He stayed
for three nights and then left on Friday. How come? A silly one but it is
Friday was the name of the horse.
Get out of the box! Think laterally.
And so, I have compiled a lateral thinking
test by selecting from the dozens of standard simple questions that float around the
internet, are exchanged in offices or are part of discussions of groups where the process
of thinking takes center stage.
Try the test. Discuss it with a friend or
friends. Look for that inspirational flash that will take you from ordinary to
extraordinary. Play with it awhile. You might enjoy it. Maybe, youll even learn to
expand your everyday perceptions of things.
The answers are given through the link
below but dont scroll to it yet. Try a couple of questions. Check the answers
we try to give you a little of the lateral thinking approach. Go back and apply
what you have learned and try several more.
Lateral Thinking Test
1. Do they have a 4th of July in
2. How many birthdays does the
average man have?
3. Some months have 31 days, how
many have 28?
4. A woman gives a beggar 50 cents,
the woman is the beggars sister, but the beggar is not the womans brother. How
5. Why cant a man living in
the U.S.A. be buried in Canada?
6. How many outs are there in an
7. Is it legal for a man in
California to marry his widows sister? Why?
8. Two men play five games of
checkers. Each man wins the same number of games. There are no ties. Explain this.
9. Anthony and Cleopatra are lying
dead on the floor of a villa in Egypt. Nearby is a broken bowl. There is no mark on either
of their bodies and they were not poisoned. How did they die?
10. A man builds a house rectangular
in shape. All sides have southern exposure. A bear walks by the house. What color is the
11. There are three apples and you
take away two. How many do you have?
12. I have two U.S. coins totaling
55 cents. One is not a nickel.
What are the coins?
13. If you have only one match and
you walked into a room where there was an oil burner, a kerosene lamp, and a wood burning
stove, what would you light first?
14. How far can a dog run into the
15. A doctor gives you three pills
telling you to take one every half hour. How long would the pills last?
16. A clerk in the butcher shop is
5' 10" tall. What does he weigh?
17. How many animals of each sex did
Moses take on the ark?
18. A farmer has 17 sheep, and all
but nine die. How many are left?
19. How many two cent stamps are
there in a dozen?
Lateral Thinking requires
that you throw away
Follow the tubes.
20. What was the
21. If you drove a bus with 43
people on board from Chicago and stopped at Pittsburgh to pick up seven more people
and drop off five passengers and at
Cleveland to drop off eight passengers and pick up four more and eventually arrive at
Philadelphia 20 hours later, whats the
name of the driver?
22. In Okmulgee, Oklahoma, you
cannot take a picture of a man with a wooden leg. Why not?
23. I went to bed at eight
oclock in the evening and wound up my clock and set the alarm to sound at nine
oclock in the morning. How many hours sleep would I get before being awoken by the
24. How could you rearrange the
letters in the words "new door" to make one word? Note: There is only one
25. A taxi driver was called to take
a group of passengers to the train station. The station is normally an hour away, but with
traffic being extra heavy, it took a full hour and a half. On the return trip the traffic
was still as heavy and yet it took only 90 minutes. Why?
26. A child is born in Boston,
Massachusetts to parents who were both born in Boston, Massachusetts. The child is not a
United States citizen. How is this possible?
27. Before Mount Everest was
discovered, what was the highest mountain on Earth?
28. Captain Frank and some of the
boys were exchanging old war stories. Art Bragg offered one about how his grandfather led
a battalion against a German division during World War I. Through brilliant maneuvers, he
defeated them and captured valuable territory. After the battle, he was presented with a
sword bearing the inscription "To Captain Bragg for Bravery, Daring and Leadership.
World War One. From the Men of Battalion 8." Captain Frank looked at Art and said:
"You really dont expect anyone to believe that yarn, do you?" Whats
wrong with the story?
29. What is one thing that all wise
men, regardless of their religion or politics, agree is between heaven and earth?
30. A woman from New York married
ten different men from that city, yet she did not break any laws. None of these men died
and she never divorced. How was this possible?
31. Why are 1990 American dollar
bills worth more than 1989 American dollar bills?
32. How many times can you subtract
the number 5 from 25?
Thirty-two questions in a test, thats
odd! No, not really. Were just trying to get you to think outside that conventional
To check the answers click here.
Lateral thinking is certainly not going to
replace conventional thinking style. It is a new idea, and its hard to accept at
times. Most of the examples presented here have been fairly small scale not big
enough for us to realize the potential and the usefulness of this thinking method!
Schools have not adopted lateral thinking
as part of their curriculum. Tradition has often stifled creativity.
Now we dont hold out lateral thinking
as a panacea. We dont believe it to be much more than an exercise for the mind. An
exercise, if well practiced, can lead you to ideas, approaches, thoughts and conclusions
that otherwise you might have missed.
If this whole exercise left you cold,
perhaps one day youll be reading the Trib and gasp, "How did they
ever figure that out?"
Well never tell.
Michael Schenkler can be reached at: MSchenkler@QueensTribune.com
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