Looking For The Right Answer

Life can be a big noisy party with people talking, music playing, glasses clinking, people dancing and the floor shaking.

Twitter can be a big noisy stream with people tweeting hordes of information flowing past you in a 24-7 stream. Facebook can be a big noisy family and friend gathering with people sharing video clips, pictures, links to articles, and playing games like Farmville and Mafia wars. LinkedIn can be a big noisy networking session with people sharing status updates, resumes, making recommendations and connecting with former coworkers.

No matter what it is, you can probably find the noise and distractions. You can find noise in social media. You can find noise in your neighbor’s party. You can find noise in the privacy of your home.

Even with all the noise, it’s possible for you to understand the person sitting across from you. Or one thirty feet away. Or one thirty miles away. Or one thirty thousand miles away.

That’s because our attention is selective–we can tune in certain things and tune out others. We know how to use filters to tune out the static.

Don’t believe me? Take a look around the room where you are sitting right now and find five things that have green in them. Go ahead and do it.

With a green mindset, you’ll find that the green jumps right out at you. Likewise, whenever you learn a new word, you’ll hear it repeatedly throughout the next couple of days. Similarly, when you decide to purchase a new car, you’ll see that same make everywhere.

That’s because people find what they are looking for. If you’re looking for beauty, you’ll find beauty. If you’re looking for the bad in the world, you’ll find it. If you’re looking for the good in others, you’ll find the good. If you’re looking for conspiracies, you’ll find conspiracies.

It’s all a matter of setting your mental channel.

Try the following mental exercise.

Take a look at these four numbers. “One of these things is not like the other. Which of these things just doesn’t belong?”

So which number did you choose? If you choose 1991, congratulations, you chose the right answer. 1991 is the only one that is a palindrome (reads the same forward or backwards).

If you chose 1993 because it is the only one with the number 3, congratulations, you choose the right answer too. If you choose 1993 because it’s the only one that the sum adds up to 22, you got the right answer.

If you choose 9191 because it’s the only one that starts with a nine, pat yourself on the back. You chose the right answer as well.

However if you chose 1919 as the one not like the others because it was the only one with a 1 in the third digit, you are also right.

In other words, they are all right depending upon your point of view. It depends upon your mental channel.

By the time the average American has finished college, he or she has taken more than 2,600 tests, quizzes and exams–many similar to the one you just took–all looking for the right answer.

The challenge is that most of life isn’t this way. Life is ambiguous. There are many right answers–all depending upon what you are looking for. If you think there is only right answer, then you’ll stop looking as soon as you find one.

The practice of looking for the “right answer” can have serious consequences in the way we think about and deal with problems. Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it’s the only one you have.

For the most effective thinking, we need different points of view. Otherwise, we’ll get stuck looking at the same things and miss seeing things outside our focus.

It’s time to start looking for as many right answers as possible and shift our mental thinking.

What do you think? Is it always about finding the right answer? Can the right answer be different for different people? Share your thoughts.

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  1. Jeff,

    Reading this I was reminded of the movie “Patch Adams”. Arthur Mendelson (played by Harold Gould) asks only one question “WHAT DO YOU SEE”. While everyone answers “4 fingers”, Patch finally finds a different answer. I love his quote:

    “See what no one else sees. See what everyone chooses not to see… out of fear, conformity or laziness. See the whole world anew each day!”

    To do this requires different thinking, which when accepted opens doors you wouldn’t think of.

    I offer that this blog is such a place, where there are multiple right answers.

    I just posted a blog that plays nicely off of this. In it I argue that the only way to innovate is to try, try and try again. I would offer that the only way to learn is to figure out several right ways and keep trying until you’ve discovered all the rights that you can.

  2. Justin Locke says:

    Well 2 principles of applied stupidity apply:

    Principle #26:
    Tests Only Measure Your Ability to
    Take the Test You Are Taking.

    Principal #27:
    The Correctness of an Answer to a
    Question Is Never Absolute and Is
    Always Affected by Who Is Giving the Test.

    also i find there to be a subtle but important emotional difference between the words “right” and “correct.”

    the right answer is the one that gets approval and acceptance. the correct answer, well, ask galileo.

    tests serve many functions, the main one of which is to sort people and put them in different groups that’s why we test at the end of the year instead of that the start. if a test is meant to expedite learning it should be at the start, to show what needs to get taught. and, a test really shows the performance of the teacher, not the student– wasn’t it their job to make learning happen?

    i really should send you a copy of “”principles” 🙂 let me know if you’re interested. jl

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  4. Dave Will says:

    Jeff, I’m getting into your blog. Thanks!

    So, do you believe in an “absolute truth”? I think I do. But of course I think that’s only for science. But don’t you think that there are often right-ish answers? Answers that are more right than others?

    Love the point that perspective determines what is right. And I agree, but I think too often, we accept everything as being right when that’s just not… well…. right. It’s ok for some people and cultures to make bad, damaging decisions that they thought were right at the time, but in retrospect turned out to be ”not right”. Unfortunately, it’s more popular for us in the politically correct world for everyone to be right.

  5. Adrian Segar says:

    Hi Jeff, here are a couple of other perspectives. The first stems from my scientific training long ago.

    Last week I discovered that I, and about 70 other physicists, won the 2009 European Physical Society High Energy and Particle Physics prize for an experiment we conducted 37 years ago. (No one bothered to tell me last year, because I haven’t been a practicing physicist since 1978.) So, even orthodox science is cautious about saying that experiments are “right” until a lot of other corroborating experiments have been performed.

    The second perspective involves the difficulty of specifying all the conditions and assumptions involved in the “right answer”. For example, as you know, I’m an enthusiastic (some might say rabid) proponent of my approach to small conference design. That approach has been refined for nearly twenty years of countless experiments, many of which didn’t “work” but which provided valuable information in the process. (Every well-designed experiment provides valuable information, even, sometimes especially, if the results aren’t what were expected.)

    What I do at conferences these days is different in many ways from what happens at most current events.

    Sometimes it’s possible to hear about something and quickly realize that it’s a really good idea. Unfortunately, as I think you’ve experienced Jeff, the value of innovative conference design is not usually something that’s easy to convey by description. You normally have to experience the process to “get it”.

    Consequently, when I’m trying to explain the value of what I’ve developed, in order to be successful I have to understand the assumptions that listeners make about what’s possible at an event, and learn about their event experiences and how they’ve colored their opinions about workable event formats.

    And, I have to successfully convey the myriad of experiences and assumptions that surround what I do. If I leave these out, people usually don’t understand my framework through the lens of their own experience.

    To summarize, I’m saying that there can be “right answers” in a well-specified context. What often happens is that people argue about what is “right” without being clear about their underlying beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions. Being clear about one’s beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions, and exploring how changes in these affect what’s “right” is hard work that is frequently skipped. Unfortunately.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Love the Patch Adams story. It applies here well. Thanks for adding it.

      Great addition. the subtle emotional difference between the words right and correct. I can identify with that.

      So glad you’ve been reading and adding to the discussion. Do I believe in absolute truth? Wow, that’s a loaded question and I’m with you that I think I do but…science doesn’t always deal in absolutes, religions do of course. I’m one that leans more to looking at the truth inside of people’s hearts, about helping others along the journey, about abandoning our self-serving quest for right opinion. Uh-oh, that last phrase may get some people roused. Just sayin’…

      Great comments on the need to experience something before passing judgement. Thanks for adding your insights and experiences.

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