This post revisits a story I originally published in the April, 2005 edition of the “Affinity News.” It’s the story of how my (then) four year old helped me figure out how to hang a door. I’ve also included what I’ve learned from the experience. I hope you find it a refreshing read. Please let me know if there is any way I may be of service to you.
In this post:
Story: Consult a Fool
In September of 1995, we were preparing to rent the upper flat of the duplex we owned on the East Side of Milwaukee. When we moved into the flat five years earlier, we found the door to the back bedroom was ready to fall off its hinges. Since we used the room for a nursery, it didn’t bother us to just take the door off and store it in the basement. It was time now to fix the frame and re-hang the door.
In the interest of efficiency, my wife and I split the chores and the kids for the day. After packing the car with a few things that needed to go to the new house, Helen and Jessica, our five year old, were off. I stayed at the old house with Rachel, who had just turned four.
Since I started losing my vision in the early 1980’s, I’ve learned to adapt my approach to projects. It’s easy to get sidetracked on a project like hanging doors by viewing the inability to read a measuring device as an obstacle. The trick is to recognize that taking accurate measurements, and knowing the number of units that describe a measurement are two different things. Rachel and I had prepared the old doorframe and cut wooden dowels to form a base for fastening the door hinges to the frame. When it came time to install the wooden dowels, we realized we had a problem. We couldn’t get the dowels started into the holes we had drilled. Just as planned, the dowels and the holes were almost exactly the same size. The dowels needed a taper on them before they would go into the holes.
I quickly found we were stuck. Searching the house turned up neither a file nor the right sandpaper to taper the dowels. There was a hardware store a few blocks away, but I didn’t have my cane and didn’t think it would be wise to ask Rachel to guide me in navigating the busy streets. The phone had been transferred already and I didn’t have a cell phone at that time. It seemed we were out of options.
Before giving up completely, I thought I’d try one last thing. I had recently read a book called “A Whack on the Side of the Head” by Roger von Oech on the topic of creative thinking. One of the techniques von Oech suggests is, when stuck for fresh ideas, ask someone who has no knowledge of the topic for advice. The technique is called “Consult a fool.” My four year old seemed a prime test candidate for the principle.
I explained to Rachel what I was trying to do and what I’d do if I had the right tools. When I asked her what she thought we should do, she suggested we should scrape the dowels on the floor of the basement. She explained that when she fell in the basement, she scraped some of the skin off of her knee. Brilliant! Being a sunny day, we decided to test her suggestion on the concrete steps at the front of the house. Within a few minutes, we were back upstairs with a set of tapered dowels. The dowels fit in place just as planned and we were able to hang the door the next day. By the way, I’ve come to know my daughter Rachel as one of the smartest people around.
I’ve found this technique to be quite useful over the years. The thing that always impresses me about “consulting a fool” is the amount of common sense that is exposed by seemingly uninformed individuals:
- While talking to a runner, preparing for a half marathon, I absent mindedly suggested that she portion her sport drink concentrate in 35 MM film holders. She thought it was a great idea. The catch phrase, among her cohorts, for the race was “Consult a fool.”
- In another situation, a recently elected Board Director suggested the organization might be more effective if we placed greater emphasis on serving our client’s needs. That felt more like “Tell a fool.” and was extremely valuable advice.
- I’m regularly reminded that the acronyms thrown around at open meetings does nothing to inform the people the organization is chartered to serve.
In my facilitation practice “consult a fool” has morphed into “The wisdom is in the room.” I am always impressed by the wisdom inherent in diverse groups. A group of individuals, with a variety of backgrounds and experience, are likely to bring differing perspectives to the table. I find it fascinating to facilitate a group on a general topic (such as: “celebrating – what, when, and where,” and seeing where the conversation goes. I intentionally avoid making assumptions on where the conversation will go. I regularly find the insights of the group exceed anything I could have come up with on my own.
Applying the lessons
I regularly remind groups that the wisdom in the room is more than enough to address the topic of focus. I fully believe this and it serves as a good reminder for those who may not have heard this before. On the other hand, I wouldn’t never tell someone that I was relying on their ignorance as a creative tool. The whole point of “consulting a fool” is to engage the fresh perspective that can only come from an absence of pre-conceived ideas.
Consulting a fool is not a substitute for being competent. I knew we needed to be able to put a taper on the dowels in order to seat them in the door frame. I just couldn’t figure out how to do that with the available tools. Rachel’s fresh perspective illuminated the fact that the concrete surface of the basement floor was an abrasive surface. Her insight was a revelation of what was hidden in plain sight.
Food for thought
- When have you been surprised by the insights you received from an unexpected source?
- How do you include the voices of seemingly uninformed people into your thought processes?
- What do you have to lose by asking for ideas from seemingly uninformed people?
- How do you acknowledge the wisdom you gain from unexpected sources.
- Gino, Francesca. (2018) Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules.” in Work and in Life. Dey Street Books. New York.
- National Public Radio. (8/19/2019) “How to be a rebel.” Hidden Brain. https://www.npr.org/2019/08/19/752394477/you-2-0-rebel-with-a-cause#mainContent
- von Oech, Roger. (2008) “A Whack on the Side of the Head
How You Can Be More Creative.” Grand Central Publishing.
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