The sixteenth-century historian Girolamo Benzoni told a story about a dinner party that Christopher Columbus attended with a group of Spanish nobles. It would have been a dazzling affair – the aristocracy of the day entertaining the man who discovered the New World. The nobles wanted to hear stories of his expeditions and share in the glory by association with the great man.
But not all of them were impressed. One commented that Columbus’s discovery of a new route to the Indies was not so remarkable, because anyone with a fleet could have done the same thing. Columbus then asked for an egg. He challenged the nobles to make the egg stand on its end. They each tried and failed. Then Columbus tapped the end of the egg gently on the table to make a slight indentation in its shell (it had been hard boiled) and stood it up on its flattened end. The nobles immediately understood. The solution to a problem may seem obvious after the fact, but that doesn’t mean that it was obvious beforehand.
This is what’s meant by the phrase “Columbus’s egg.” It’s an idea that is obvious only in hindsight.
Note the expression on the face of the nobleman standing behind Columbus and looking over his shoulder. It’s the expression of “I should have known that!”
But how can we know?
Those of you who have worked with me, know that there’s no such thing as “should have” and “could have” thinking. We’re doing the best we can in each moment with what we have.
How do we overcome problems then?
We need new insights. New tools. New awareness. New perceptions. There is no way to fast forward to the end and see what is the correct solution.
Let's use an example. Think of a problem you have. Hmmm…what’s could be going on in society at the moment which might be causing you problems???
Now think of a time when you’ve had an "aha moment". Your own moment of insight to solve a problem. Remember what you were doing. How you were feeling. What you were thinking. I’ll use some examples clients have told me:
“I was on a day off, wasn’t even focusing on the problem, when I had this idea to….”
“I woke up and thought…”
“I accidentally did…and that gave me the idea to do...”
“I was walking along enjoying the sunshine and suddenly I knew I had to…”
“I was relaxing in the bath when…”
When faced with a problem it’s easy to get overwhelmed, anxious and panic. We forget that we come up with solutions all the time.
Did you notice how in the above moments of insight, it was often when the person wasn't thinking about the problem that the solution just seemed to pop up out of nowhere?
Have a go
Have a go at letting go of the problem and seeing what insights your mind reveals.
Hint: The nobles were operating within conceived boundaries, limitations and assumptions. It constrained their thinking and behaviours to miss a better idea and perception. Columbus wasn’t.
Be a modern-day Columbus and discover your own route to a New World.
P.S. If no insights come that's OK. It's impossible to know everything. That's called being human. Simply do what the nobles did. Let someone else figure it out and then have a party with them
Something to think about...
“The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones.”
- John Maynard
Preface to The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1935)