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Parable of the Light Switch

I was puzzling about a light switch with a broken “arm” that holds the control knob, when a brilliant solution appeared out of nowhere to solve the problem in an unexpected way. The experience left me thinking about a better approach to solving the countless other nasty problems that beset us on all sides today.

The arm sticks out from the switch and holds a knob that controls the action. As an engineer, I thought I could solve the problem with a small bit of metal to replace the broken part. I gave a lot of thought to where I could find a piece of metal that would work, how to cut it to the precise size, if I should glue or solder it in place, and endless other little dilemmas that are familiar to any handy man who works on his home.

It would take a few hours, I thought, and there was no assurance it would work, so I was feeling discouraged. Suddenly out of the blue, I mysteriously reached my hand up to a shelf in my workshop and grabbed a bit of “putty” lying around, slapped it into the back of the knob, and simply pressed the knob onto the broken off stub of the switch’s arm. The putty held the knob perfectly, and the problem was solved in seconds!
This dramatic solution seemed to appear out of nowhere, and it was so brilliant that I found myself laughing hysterically. I had saved hours of tedious labor and solved the problem in an easy, secure way. Rather than the methodical, painstaking approach I had in mind, this was a totally different logic, almost as if I had entered a parallel universe containing powerful solutions. Why didn’t I think of this before, I wondered? Where did the idea come from? Could the secret to this approach be applied to other dilemmas, I wondered?

I have to admit I don’t really understand how this happened, and so I can’t offer a convenient formula for finding creative solutions beyond letting go of what you know, thinking creatively, and other common guides. But this simple incident reminds me that often we struggle against odds to solve tough problems using the wrong approach, as in the war on terror, poor health care systems, poverty, pollution, and endless other challenges facing the world today. Rather than on wasting time and energy pushing the same old logic, the real solutions probably lie in rethinking the very nature of the problem and finding easier, more penetrating solutions. That’s what my work is about.

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