It can happen to all of us: we get in the middle of a problem and our thinking gets stuck. That's when I turn to the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus. His enigmatic epigrams jostle my thinking and force me out of my habitual thought patterns. When I'm done figuring out what Heraclitus is saying, I've usually got a new slant on my problem. The following is Creative Insight #13 (from the Innovative Whack Pack):
Here's one interpretation of this insight.
In this wonderful metaphor, the "sun" represents the dominant feature of a situation. Here are a few examples:
- A player who consistently outshines his teammates;
- A strong spice that overwhelms the other flavors in a food dish;
- A loud sound that drowns out other sounds; or,
- An activity that leaves no time to do anything else.
The "evening stars" represent the less obvious aspects of a situation. We don't see them because the "sun" is so bright. But when there is no sun, these "stars" are visible. To say this in another way: discovery often means the uncovering of something that was always there but was obscured by something else.
The following apocryphal story is an example of "seeing the stars." One day in the fourth century BC, a young Greek librarian had the task of storing away a large number of manuscripts. He asked himself, "What simple ordering system can devise so that I -- or anyone else -- can easily retrieve them later?" After playing with the issue for awhile, he thought of the Greek alphabet -- but not as it was usually conceived. His contemporaries typically considered the alphabet to be a series of phonetic symbols (alpha, beta, gamma, delta, epsilon, . . .) that were used primarily to form words or less often to represent numbers.
The librarian decided to de-emphasize the alphabet's linguistic and numerical functions. By doing so, he was able to focus on a less apparent feature: each letter's relationship to the others in the alphabet. He thought, "If I place those manuscripts whose titles begin with beta before those beginning with gamma but after those beginning with alpha, and use that same logic throughout, I'll create a storage and retrieval system that's simple and efficient." And that's what he did. By consciously ignoring the alphabet's "sun" (its linguistic function), the librarian was able to discover the "stars" of alphabetization.
What's the most dominant feature of your situation? What "new stars" come into view when you ignore (or get away from) this feature? Do you have one typical way you solve problems? Can you try a different way? Is your ego the "sun" that outshines other possibilities?