I’m always intrigued with the machinations of the human mind, especially
when it comes to solving problems. For more than fifty years I’ve been
addicted to crossword puzzles, slowly gaining an expertise that now allows
me to complete at least the Monday through Thursday word tests in The
New York Times. On Fridays and Saturdays I require the help of my
Copy Editor, and we share Sunday’s longer puzzle.
Friday, June 27, 2003 was a typical day for me with a difficult puzzle. I started after
lunch on our porch in Maine, making little progress during the first half-hour. The page
showed numerous “s” and “ed” endings plus a few lightly penciled guesses (I use a pen
for Monday through Wednesday, shifting sensibly to a pencil for the harder late-in-theweek
puzzles). Then a phone call derailed me for the afternoon. I returned to the project
at 5 p.m., with a tot of rum to stimulate the senses, completing the top left and bottom
right in twenty minutes, after which I found myself stymied again. I put the puzzle aside
a second time.
The Boston Red Sox intervened after dinner, but they scored ten runs without an out,
going on to a total of fourteen runs in the first inning. With the game’s conclusion
foregone, I picked up the puzzle, finishing in twenty minutes all but the upper right-hand
corner, which continued to be incomprehensible. Finally, at 9:30 p.m., after an hour of
reading, I finished it off with ease in less than ten minutes, wondering why what was so
obvious then had been so difficult earlier. My elapsed time: 80 minutes of struggle. Not
world-class but, like the tortoise, I did finish.
The point of this tale is that the human mind works strangely. By bringing a fresh and
uncluttered mind to bear at different times, we can more readily solve difficult problems.
A judicious pause or break can refresh our ability to untangle the knots. Is this a new
insight? Hardly, but the message requires repetition, especially in a world that wants
immediate results. Good work takes time and repeated assaults.
I learned a variation on this theme while serving in the U. S. Navy in the late 1950s. One
evening at sea, closing the coast of Japan, I stood on the bridge with the ship’s navigator
searching the horizon for the flash of a lighthouse that marked a major course change. We
knew it would be just off the port bow. The navigator suggested that I would have better
luck in sighting the light if I looked not directly at the point where I expected it but to
either side of that point, using my peripheral vision. It worked. I spotted the light before
the lookouts, and I learned a lesson in both physics and human nature. We often reach
objectives not through direct approaches but through the indirect. It is similar to tacking a
sailing boat upwind.
I use both approaches for writing and editing
Risk Management Reports. If I try and create ideas for a forthcoming
issue directly, my mind often balks. If I search to one side or another,
ideas inevitably pop up. The peripheral mind is often more creative than
its direct cousin. After I draft the initial text, I re-read it at least
three different times. Microsoft Word reviews spelling and grammar. Then
it goes to the Copy Editor who, over a sushi lunch, reads (and often savages)
the draft, returned to me stained with green wasabi and soy sauce. I give
it two more separate readings and manage to catch a few more mistakes
and to improve a few words. These multiple readings, over a period of
five days, are the same fresh views that help solve crossword puzzles
and other problems.
Frequent pauses and breaks in the action, combined with the application
of different perspectives, sometimes peripheral, can add real value to
your risk management process. Risk scenarios and their responses will
benefit, refreshed by multiple intuitive and experiential insights. Take
time to solve your puzzles. Try to sight the future using oblique views.
And is not human life in many parts of the world governed to
this day less by time than by the weather, and thus by an unquantifiable
dimension which disregards linear regularity, does not progress
consistently forward but moves in eddies, is marked by episodes
of congestion and irruption, recurs in ever-changing forms, and
evolves in no one knows what direction?
W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz, Modern Library, New York 2001