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👩🍳 Odyssey of the Spatula 🧑🍳
🕯️ Adventures in Functional Fixedness 📌
"If the only tool you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail." -Abraham Maslow
Go to your kitchen and pull out your favorite kitchen utensil.
No, this is not an icebreaker at the beginning of a Shabbaton.
(I know you were worried.1)
In three minutes, write down every way this utensil could be used, EXCEPT for why you bought it.
I did this exercise all the time on Reisterstown Elementary School’s (last-place) Odyssey of the Mind (OM) team.
OM is a program for students worldwide that helps strengthen creativity muscles. In theory, the people selected for my elementary school’s team were the most creative students in the school. My school’s OM team did this exercise for weeks, each time with a different object, everything from spatulas to stuffed animals. I thought our answers were decent, but I was wrong (a harbinger of things to come.)
To this day, I’ve never done well at activities like this one. This is disconcerting for various reasons, especially because activities like this are invaluable when we want to solve complex problems.
A few months before turning 40, I’m now old enough that I can say with some confidence that the Jewish Community complains about many of the same problems I heard about when I was 20.2 Still, worse, it sometimes feels like every year, new people come into organizations with a mandate to “solve” those longstanding problems but do the same things as their predecessors (and, predictably,3 get the same poor results.) We’d save a lot of time and money if organizations first listed how people tried to solve the problem before and immediately banned new leaders from suggesting previous strategies.
What does this have to do with your kitchen utensils?
This week’s heuristic.
Instead of the kitchen utensil you grabbed, let’s do a similar exercise with a candle. Pretend I gave you that candle, a book of matches, and a box of thumbtacks.4 Using these objects, affix the candle to the wall so you can light the candle without the wax dipping on the surface below.
Have you given up yet?
This exercise is the “candle problem,” an experiment described by psychologist Karl Duncker in his 1945 monograph On Problem-Solving.5 Not surprisingly, most people struggle with the task. It turns out that the best way to solve the problem is to remove the thumbtacks from their box and mount the box on the wall using the thumbtacks, thereby mounting the candle on the wall without the wax dripping below. Watch more.
Why do most people fail at completing this task?
Because when participants see the thumbtacks inside the box, they forget that the box can also be used as a tool. Duncker defines this mental block as “functional fixedness,” the tendency of people to understand an object’s utility only through its most common use.
Perhaps you heard of the candle problem and immediately solved it. If so, I applaud you. But I’m terrible at these challenges, and it’s a humbling reminder that I’m not as creative as I hope to be.6 This challenge reminds me of a passage from the Talmud that I always read one way but could also read another way (which I suppose is appropriate):
“Similarly, Rabbi Yoḥanan said: Even if the Torah had not been given, we would nonetheless have learned modesty from the cat, which covers its excrement, and that stealing is objectionable from the ant, which does not take grain from another ant, and forbidden relations from the dove, which is faithful to its partner, and proper relations from the rooster, which first appeases the hen and then mates with it.”7
While I typically focused on this text through the prism of sustainability, it’s exciting to see it through the lens of functional fixedness. Without Rabbi Yohanan’s teaching, most people probably look at a dove, rooster, etc., only in terms of their role as non-humans, implicitly dismissing the idea that animals could teach us anything.8 Like the candle or the spatula, once someone has the intellectual flexibility to see other ways to use an item or learn from an animal, new ideas and possibilities open up.
In many ways, my struggle with functional fixedness is why I started studying the material you read about each week in Moneyball Judaism. When I did not like the tools being brought to solve a problem and felt that I offered nothing new, my only option was to read about fields that seemingly had nothing to do with Jewish organizations and see what I might find.9 At “worst,” this strategy means I learn new things about science, cooking, economics, etc., to stimulate my mind as a good in and of itself. But sometimes, I find a lens to understand a problem I never considered before.
Andy Zynga describes a similar case study on how his company helped Pepsi reduce the amount of sodium in their potato chips without changing the taste.10 To help Pepsi, Zynga’s company wrote a technical brief on the problem and allowed any industry to share possible solutions.
Who ultimately “solved” the problem?
One global research firm’s department…of orthopedics.
What does making potato chips have in common with our musculoskeletal system? I have no idea. But that’s just my functional fixedness talking.
Believe it or not, countless communal leaders could take Pepsi’s approach to solve big problems. Why don’t they? In a word: “Sludge.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Cass Sunstein (of Nudge fame) wrote a short, powerful book called Sludge: What Stops Us From Getting Things Done And What To Do About It. I’ve embraced Sunstein’s central thesis with missionary zeal; namely, that sludge creates “frictions that prevent you from doing what you want to do or from going where you want to go.”11 He writes:
“Sludge infringes on human dignity. It makes people feel that their time does not matter. In extreme cases, it makes people feel that their lives do not matter. True, it is a stretch to see sludge reduction as a complement to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—but it is not all that much of a stretch.”12
Upon seeing this definition, your initial reaction might be that “sludge” is harmful under all circumstances and is shorthand for “bureaucracy,” but that’s not necessarily true.
For example, if I want to erase all of the files on my computer, my computer will ask me if I REALLY want to do this before I do it (and even when I say “yes,” the files go into the Recycle Bin.) This is a kind of sludge; it slows me down from doing what I want but for a helpful reason.
However, if I want to call customer service about a problem with my computer, and the website of the provider makes it impossible to find a phone number,13 and even once I call it, I have to go through an automated line for 15 minutes, that is also a form of sludge. And while it may be helpful to the company, it’s certainly not for me, the consumer.14
Of course, Jewish organizations contain sludge; all organizations do. However, returning to functional fixedness, the sludge in our organizations may be what keeps specific problems from being solved. When new leaders come to struggling organizations and implement the same failed experiments of the past, they are creating a form of sludge. The path wastes time and money, saps creativity, and leaves no one with the energy to try again when this previously failed approach fails once again.15
Ultimately, functional fixedness and sludge are about mental energy. Sometimes, our minds can’t access tools because we don’t know how to use them. Other times, other minds don’t access tools because we’ve tried them and know they don’t work. Either way, solving big problems will require mindfulness about using precious mental energy.
Sunstein on Brainfluence
In a study in The Lancet, diabetic mice who listened to Queen’s “We Will Rock You” for 15 minutes a day saw their insulin return to normal levels without insulin injections. Here’s the original study and a more accessible summary.
Making a big noise, indeed…
Lest I need to remind anyone who is diabetic: please do not stop injecting insulin just because this study found a funky correlation.
As always, listen to your doctor.
But I approve if you want to use this study as an excuse to listen to more Queen.
What I Read This Week
Meet the Super Commuters: I’ve done a variety of commutes to get to work, but none of them like this (although I’m sure my Aunt Randi has thoughts.) Work travel continues to change in ways that will surprise all of us.
The Friendship Dip: Every year, I am fascinated by the ebb and flow of different friendships. Read more.
Rethinking Deepfakes: The New Yorker had a provocative piece on the present and future of internet deepfakes.
Autonomous Vehicles Lower Insurance Costs: I do not want a robot to drive my car (yet), but I should get used to it. Turns out robots are better drivers than humans. Get over it.
Aggressive Nostalgia: Alfie Kohn does it again. The “good old days” weren’t…
If you were wondering, my answer would be “deep fryer.”
Sadly, I am worried that when I am 60, we will still be complaining about the same problems I heard about when I was 20…
Earily, giving you a candle does not help my case that we are not planning a Shabbaton. In fairness, I never said it was a Havdalah candle.
Or perhaps it’s a reminder that my negative self-talk creates a mental block where I assume I’m bad at this kind of exercise and, thus, don’t try. The world will never know…
A few readers might say that design thinking exists for this purpose. Fair point. I love design thinking. However, most design thinking concerns the user’s experience, not the perspective the producers bring to the problem in the first place.
All that said, this is the reason I love reading church literature.
This is why I finally stopped buying PCs and went with a Mac. I can always talk to a human being in person or on the phone from Apple about my devices, usually with little wait time.
Worse, the leader who thought they were so brilliant by trying that failed path decides that the front-life staff are to blame for this path failing yet again…