The Problem With Straight Lines

Lombard Street (Crooked Street) - San Francisco, California

Not too long ago the kids and I were waiting in line to buy some food at one of the big box stores when we heard/saw another parent discipline his child for misbehaving.

When the man asked the boy to explain why he did what did the boy shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t know, I just did it.’

A short while later a conversation started in the car about whether the boy was honest in his response or if he was lying. We all agreed it was possible he might not have provided an honest answer because he feared getting into more trouble but were at a deadlock about whether it was possible he might have gotten into trouble for “acting without thinking.”

The hiccup in this theory came from my son who said people usually think about their actions and are aware of the consequences. I told him that I didn’t know if I agreed and based it upon my memories of childhood where sometimes I got myself into trouble because I did what looked fun or cool first and thought about what might happen later.

As the conversation progressed and the kids shared their thoughts and ideas it stimulated more memories from my school days, specifically of moments where I was told my answers were incorrect because I didn’t show my work.

Those moments frustrated me because I often had the correct answer but because the teacher couldn’t see how I arrived at it they marked it down. In concept I suppose it was because they weren’t sure if I had copied it off of another student or from the back of the book.

I remember trying to convince one of my Algebra teachers to at least give me partial credit because it was an even question and the back of the book only listed answers to the odds.

Decades later I hear an adult voice in my head talking about the importance of linear thinking and I want to scream at it. I understand the value and the reason but sometimes you need to trust your gut.

About Linear Thinking

“Linear Thinking” is defined as:

a process of thought following known cycles or step-by-step progression where a response to a step must be elicited before another step is taken.

It always bothered me when my teachers told me they couldn’t see how I moved from Point A to Point Q without stopping at the points in between because without a logical progression it seemed too large a leap to take.

Sometimes when we would discuss it I would mention Lombard Street (pictured above) or talk about the lines at amusement parks in which you didn’t have to move in a straight line to get to your destination. Sometimes you could move all sorts of different ways and get there.

Most of the time I would be told that learning to use a linear progression insured you would be able to solve other problems that could only be figured out in one way.

Those responses never satisfied me.

Maybe it was because sometimes I was the boy who did things without thinking about the consequences.

Sometimes it was because I just knew in my gut that I would be ok. I could jump off of the roof or out of the tree and be fine. I didn’t need a tape measure or yard stick to figure out how far it was.

I just knew.

The Problem With Linear Thinking

The problem with linear thinking is you can’t apply it to everything, people especially.

I relate that last line to the hiring methods some people use where they match the job requirements word-for-word against the experience of a candidate.

Instead of looking to see if they have transferable skills or experience that would enable them to be successful in a new position they automatically discard them and look for the squares that fit into the square hole.

Maybe they are protecting themselves. Maybe they are trying to avoid making a mistake but sometimes it is worth sticking the circle inside the square or the square inside the circle.

Sometimes people surprise you and they just see things.

Sometimes they solve problems or come up with inventions by accident and sometimes it is because their vision allowed them to reach three steps beyond where linear thinking might have taken them.

You can get to Q from A, all you need to do is try.

It hurts to fail but it hurts more to fail to try or maybe that is just my own philosophy.

What do you think?

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