Let me tell you a story of how I tried to solve a problem only to create more problems for myself, and then bring up an interesting philosophical problem related to this.
For almost a year, I had been using a filofax 6-ring A5 refillable notebook to record ideas and notes in meetings. I bought it because it looked really really nice. However, I had been very unhappy with it because it turns out that the paper refills were very expensive (about SGD$10 per pack), and yet the paper quality was very bad. The paper was so thin that whenever I wrote with a fountain pen, the ink would bleed through several pages.
I was quite unhappy to discover that it’s tough, or in fact, almost impossible to find good quality paper for this 6-ring system. I had been to many Popular bookstores and had much difficulty finding this ideal paper.
And then, a few months ago, I learnt about this Japanese paper known as Kokuyo paper, meant for refillable notebooks. Not only is it cheaper than paper for the 6-ring system (it’s less than SGD$5!), but it is also fountain pen friendly. Best of all, the texture of the paper is so nice!
Without much thought or research, I bought it. It’s cheaper than the lousy filofax paper anyway. I thought to myself: if it has 20 holes, I’m pretty sure six of these holes would fit into the existing 6-ring file, right?
To my annoyance, the 20-hole system is not aligned with the filofax 6-ring system! I had to tear some of the paper’s holes just to fit it into my refillable notebook.
Gosh… I was annoyed, but I wasn’t quite sure what else to do.
Thankfully, it was around the same period that my refillable notebook was starting to disintegrate into pieces. Wear and tear or maybe just decay and death from a year of use and abuse. Perfect timing, I thought, to get a new refillable notebook. Perhaps one that could fit the 20-holes of this Kokuyo paper.
Turns out, even this brought more problems. There aren’t that many 20-ring notebooks around. And the few that’s available in Singapore are really expensive.
But I had already bought my 20-hole Kokuyo paper. I need a 20-ring refillable notebook for it. So, after many days of painful deliberation, I finally bought one.
But you know what’s funny about the human condition? That once you’ve invested in something, especially if it’s costly, you’d want to maximise its use.
So that led me to the next thought: maybe I should consider printing out some of my work stuff and file it together with my hand-written notes for easy reference.
It’s actually not a bad idea. But here’s another problem: where do you find a hole puncher capable of punching 20 holes?
At first, I bought a $1 single-hole puncher. Whenever I wanted to file my printed notes in the 20-ring file, I would use the one-hole puncher and punch 20 holes. It was noisy, wasted a lot of time, but it worked. It wasn’t a satisfactory solution.
Until one day, I found a shop selling a 20-hole hole puncher. That’s wonderful! I knew someone out there would sell it. After all, if this 20-ring system is a Japanese standard for A5 files, then surely someone would have thought of making a hole puncher for that.
Unfortunately, this rare hole puncher costs $45. But I figured, maybe it’s actually worthwhile getting such a hole puncher. After all, I would save myself a lot of time. With the single-hole hole puncher, I could easily waste up to half an hour just punching holes. It’s not very productive. So maybe this $45 one would be worthwhile.
So, there and then, I made an impulse buy. But it was one that I regret almost instantly.
Here’s the $45 hole punch that I bought, with the head of Aristotle staring disapprovingly at it.
Aristotle wasn’t the only one who wasn’t pleased with this purchase. The Fiancee too wasn’t happy either that I spent $45 on a stupid hole puncher.
I seriously don’t know what possessed me to buy such an expensive hole puncher. Even I think it’s way too overpriced. Perhaps deep down, I was lying to myself that it was the cheaper alternative. I found another 20-hole hole puncher selling for $120. Why would anyone pay $120 for a hole puncher is beyond me. $45 is also beyond me. Sometimes I don’t understand myself.
Anyway, what was it that opened my eyes to just how stupid I was?
Well, almost immediately after purchasing the 20-hole hole puncher, I saw a 6-hole hole puncher for filofax files. That hole puncher was super cheap. Upon seeing that 6-hole hole puncher, I had a sudden realisation, and one that I wished I had a long time ago. Had I thought about this 6-hole hole puncher earlier, I could have easily solved the paper problem by buying nice paper and manually punching the holes by myself. That way, I wouldn’t have to be dependent on expensive yet lousy filofax paper. And for that matter, I could easily find a cheap and lovely 6-ring refillable notebook file to replace the old file that I had.
Gosh… Think of all the money I wasted just by investing in this system!
The next day, I shared this problem with my colleague. She was never absorbed into this problem, and so was very objective and clear-minded about it. After all my complaints about the 20-ring system, the Kokuyo paper, and the expensive hole puncher, she asked: “Why not just get a 2-ring file to file the 20-hole Kokuyo paper?”
OH. MY. GOSH. My mind was blown! Here are the words of an enlightened being!
For the rest of the day, I hung my head in shame (well, more figuratively than literally), and pondered how is it that I could not have thought of these alternatives?
I guess this is what they mean when they say “think out of the box.” That sometimes, when you’re so absorbed into a problem, you can only see immediate fixes to the problem. Our thinking gets reduced to that of a one-track mentality: A led to B, B led to C, and so now we need to find something to lead to D.
It’s easy to say: “You just need to take a step back to look at the problem with fresh eyes,” or “You should have thought outside the box.”
It’s easy to blame others when they commit faults like that because while they are trapped in that mode of thinking and perceiving, we are not.
But the real philosophical issue is: When you are trapped in such a situation, at what point are you able to identify that the problem needs a fresh set of eyes? What do you need to know in order to realise that the problem requires an “out of the box” thinking? It’s easy for outsiders to say it after all the events have been played out. But it’s not apparent to those trapped in this mode of thinking. So, is there anything that can signal to such people that they need to get out of that one-track mentality?
I’m not saying that the one-track mentality is bad. The reason why we often intuitively approach problems with this one-track mentality is because it works quite successfully for many small problems in our day-to-day lives. To approach every small issue with the need to reframe the problem would be too costly in terms of mental effort, resources and time; hence it’s not always feasible to consider reframing as the first thing to do.
However, from the first-person’s perspective of the situation as it unfolds, it’s hard to see that the problem needs to be reframed, or that it requires some “out of the box” thinking. From the first-person’s perspective, the situation presents itself as such: (a) there is a problem; (b) one seeks a solution to the problem; (c) the problem is resolved; (d) a new (related) problem surfaces; and (e) repeat the cycle from the top.
And I guess this is truly interesting and worthwhile to explore because the above situation, though stupid as it is, is an example of more serious situations where policy-makers, administrators, bureaucrats, managers, etc., are stuck in. They’re too busy trying to solve problem after problem, without realising that “out of the box” thinking is required to change the method of approach.
Which is why it’s always so easy for outsiders to complain about how stupid our politicians, policy-makers, civil servants, bosses, etc., are when it comes to making decisions. It’s not that they’re stupid or unwise (well, sometimes they are, I won’t deny that), but it’s precisely because they are in the situation where they cannot come to the realisation that they are going down a very unfruitful path.
If we can come up with conditions for identifying when we are in such situations, it would be easier for us (and for people at the top) to recognise when “out of the box” thinking is required.
Like I said, we can’t just keep harping about the need for “out of the box” thinking in everything we do, precisely because it’s too costly and time-consuming. It has its merits in solving problems that cannot easily be solved with the usual one-track approach to problems (which, as I mentioned earlier, has its own merits as well).
Perhaps, one can only come to the realisation that “out of the box” thinking is required only after this cycle has gone through several iterations. Then again, many of us could go through countless cycles without realising that “out of the box” thinking is required.
Maybe we need a type of catalyst to trigger a realisation? (E.g. like I only came to the realisation when I saw a cheaper alternative).
I’m not sure. I only just realised the philosophically interesting aspect of this problem while I wrote this post. But I’d like to hear your thoughts on this situation!