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A THOUGHT EXPERIMENT: CUTTING QUESTIONS

October 21st, 2019

 

Imagine this:

 

You have two thick pieces of identical card paper, and they are glued together,  but between the two is another thin sheet of blue paper. But within the borders of this blue sheet of paper is a white design.  The color is not just on the surface but goes all the way through to the back, so if you were to tear it in half and look at the torn edge, you would see that some of it is blue and some of it is white.  It’s a sort of mixed material paper, but it’s perfectly flat, and the edge between the two colors has no noticeable change other than color.  There’s no small divide or ridge, it is perfectly smooth.

 

Now the white design on the blue page is very very important, and your goal is to figure out what that shape is.  However, as mentioned, it is glued between two thick pieces of card paper.

 

You are tasked with figuring out what the design is, and all you are given is a pair of scissors.

 

Imagine how this tedious process would go: 

 

 

You have to cut into the sandwiched paper and then look at the edge of the cut you’ve made, inspecting it for any white in the layer of blue. 

 

Slowly you cut farther into the paper until you hit some white, and then you know you’ve gone too far, so you change directions slightly and test with a small cut.  All blue.  So you cut some more until you find white.

 

Slowly, by prodding into the area of white you would eventually find the border… if you are careful and diligent.

 

This thought experiment is an analogy for the way we build and discover novel things.  Whether that be learning something knew like how to install a perfectly aligned drawer or whether that be finding a profitable idea for a business.  With each, while learning or figuring out, we ask ourselves questions that propel us forward.  This can be as simple as what should I do next?  and from there it can get as specific and detailed as necessary.  What if I do this?  Maybe that would be better?

 

Each question that we ask is like a single cut with the scissors.  The question we ask inspires some course of action to investigate and ideally we come up with some kind of result.  And that result is like inspecting the layer of blue that we’ve cut into.  Sometimes there doesn’t seem to be any result, and all we see is blue.  But when we hit upon something, there’s a noticeable change.  We see some white.  And we want to follow that color to see what else is there, because this mysterious character or shape or rune is the key to increased agency. 

 

Every time we learn something or build something that makes an impact, we are invariably more capable than we were before the effort.  And it’s through this iterative process of action and result, and making sensible course corrections depending on the results we find.

 

 

It’s tedious, but it works.

 

 

The astute thinker will be wondering about shapes and characters and designs that have some kind of internal negative space.  Think about the difference between the letter ‘T’ and the letter ‘B’  You can trace a ‘T’ without ever picking up your pen.  But in order to trace out a ‘B’ you need to lift your pen in order to make the two spaces inside of the ‘B’.

 

So what does this mean with regards to the thought experiment?

 

Well it’s certainly important to find the outer limits of the shape, that thing we are building, or the skill we are learning. 

 

But we need not fear cutting straight into the thing we seek.  Who knows what details lie within that require our attention.

 


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Podcast Ep. 554: A Thought Experiment: Cutting Questions

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Tinkered Thinking


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