On Second Thought…

A student was in physics class taking a test. The final question on the test was, “Given a barometer, how would you measure the height of this building?” Now, the go-to answer for this is to go to the first floor, note the pressure, go to the roof, note the pressure, and run it through an equation.

However, this particular student took a different approach. His answer: “I’d go ask the building manager.”

The student aced the quiz, except for that final question. He went up to the teacher and asked why it was marked incorrectly. Rather than reply, the teacher decided to give him another chance at the question.

The student’s response this time around: “I’d trade the barometer for rope, drop rope off the roof, and measure the distance.”

Once again, the teacher marked his answer incorrect. This time when the student approached the teacher, the teacher stated: “You have a barometer for a reason, use the barometer!” The student replied, “Fine. I’d drop the barometer off the roof, count the time it took to hit the ground, then use Newton’s Law of Falling Bodies to determine the distance.”

Despite annoying the teacher, that student ended up becoming one of the greatest inventors of all time, Nikola Tesla.  He is credited for inventing alternating current (AC) electricity and one of his patents led to the invention of the radio.

In your own life, you are often faced with the challenge of figuring something out.  Sure, there are the obvious answers, but often the most elegant and compelling solutions are the least instinctive.  Divergent thinking – approaching problems from a radically non-traditional perspective – has led to many of civilization’s most important breakthroughs.

The next time you are charged with solving a problem, take a minute to explore unusual approaches before diving in.  Could you solve it backwards?  What is the exact opposite of conventional wisdom?  How would someone from 400 BC try to solve it? What about someone from 500 years in the future?

We often attack challenges with the same-old, same-old methods and then wonder why we get mediocre results.  If you want to reach that illuminated state of never-been-done-before, it’s time to break free from traditional tactics.

Oppositional thinking led Nikola Tesla to become one of the most celebrated inventors in history.  Where will it lead you?

(Special thanks to Ryan Folsom from the QuickenLoans Unix Team for sharing this fantastic story on Tesla.)