Chapter 1
The Lesson from the Other
Side of the Fence
man drives past an institution for mentally-disturbed
patients when his right front tire goes flat. He pulls to
the side of the road, jacks up the car, removes the wheel
cover, loosens the four lug nuts, puts them in the wheel cover,
and proceeds to remove the tire. As he does so, he bumps the
wheel cover and all four lug nuts spill out and roll through a
grate and into the sewer. Cursing his clumsiness, he exclaims
aloud, “What am I going to do?”
Behind him, a voice says, “Why don’t you take one lug
nut from each of the other three wheels and use them for the
spare tire until you can get to a service station?” He looks
around and notices a man in institutional pajamas and
bathrobe, standing on the other side of a tall chain-link fence.
“What a great idea!” he tells the man in the pajamas. “But
how is it you can be so helpful, when you’re in there and I’m
out here?”
“I’m in here because I’m crazy, not because I’m stupid.”
Well, it’s not necessarily stupidity that keeps us from
thinking through a problem situation to find a workable
solution. Even people with the mechanical skills required to
change a tire can go into brain-block when they see their lug
nuts roll down the drain. And some people are not mentally
agile enough to reflex into a problem-solving mode when the
situation demands it, especially if the problem is outside their
usual cognitive territory.
Thinking Clearly
A true story this time: A headlight burned out on my
wife’s car, and she stopped at a neighborhood service station
to get it fixed. The mechanic handed her a bulb and said,
“Here, your husband can plug it in.” She replied, “You would
think so, but he’s a professor.”
The mechanic laughed and promptly replaced the bulb.
My wife drove away with a problem solved, rather than cre-
ating another (getting me to replace the bulb). She used
stereotyping in reverse to get the mechanic, who had never
gone to college, to imagine the stereotypical “smart profes-
sor” who has no practical skills. He performed the simple task
for her out of sympathy, and as a courtesy.
These anecdotes are offered to open this short investiga-
tion into thinking as a set of skills rather than as a byproduct
of intelligence or education. Along the way, I will introduce
you to some very competent people, educators whose life-
work is teaching creativity, thinking, problem-solving skills,
and information-organizing for better memory. You will dis-
cover that working “smart” is a lot more fun than working
hard, and it makes you more effective.
Some Brain-Blockers to Look Out For
Our brains take mental and linguistic shortcuts. Stereotyping
is one of them. It can obscure facts and distort the search for
information, but it can also accurately reflect established
characteristics of large groups of people (i.e., Italians are
warm people, or Estonians are serious and very intense).
Generally, however, this “hardening of the categories” is
unfair and negative; it reflects racial or sexual biases, or per-
ceptions about people on either side of caste and class
boundaries. Managers-versus-workers and them-versus-us

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