Several years ago, my wife and I were walking through a local shopping mall. At the time, there was some sort of Asian festival. At a display booth there was a table upon which were two trays, side by side. One was empty, and the other had many beans. The sign challenged visitors to see how many beans could be moved to the empty tray with chopsticks in one minute.  A piece of paper indicated the top score so far: something like 10. I imagined how somebody could have spent 6 seconds per bean…

My wife, being quite adept with the tool, was able to get a respectable number of beans across, despite the difficulty of picking up a single slippery bean.

Then she challenged me, having used chopsticks all my life, to see if I could beat her score.

To her chagrin, I deftly wielded the sticks, one in each hand, horizontally in parallel to scoop up dozens of beans at a time, crushing the day’s high score. Of course this wasn’t the normal way most people use chopsticks, but then, it easily was the best solution to the problem at hand.

(I’m sure some of you are thinking that a better solution be to pick up the full tray and pour the beans onto the empty tray, but how hard would it be to lift the tray with chopsticks?)

At a recent social gathering, we were divided into groups to solve some word puzzles: given a fairly long word, how many words can be formed from the letters of the original word before the timer rang.

Many people would write out the given word as soon as the timer started like so:

E S T A B L I S H M E N T

so that others in the group could think up words.

When it was my turn to write the word, I wrote it like this:

E S T A

B L I S H

M E N T

This gave our group 2 dimensions along which to see letter combinations to form words.

My kids had a toy recently, and it had a box into which we had to insert batteries. The box had very tiny Philips screws on it, and my kids tried various small screwdrivers, even my set of jeweler’s drivers. I could get the screws to turn, but they never came out. It turns out that the screws were decorative: just pull the top off the box<sigh>.

(In the old days, no battery operated toys protected their owners from the hazardous battery voltages. Nowadays, probably due to some lawsuit, every compartment seems to need to protect kids from 1.5 volts)

I spend much of my time solving problems. Sometimes I get so involved in a problem I get stuck. Perhaps then, it is a good time to take a break, rethink the approach, use the tools a little differently or even just kick the tires. Often talking about it with someone else can give useful insights. Doing the unorthodox or unthinkable might just solve the problem!