Puzzles And Mysteries


A few months ago, I attended a conference where Malcolm Gladwell was the keynote speaker. He is a writer for The New Yorker and has written a number of books, among them, The Tipping Point, The Outliers, and What a Dog Saw. He’s a very thought-provoking writer, and I have always really enjoyed his work.
At the conference, one of the concepts he talked about was mysteries and puzzles. He defined them this way, ‘Puzzles occur when there is not enough data.’ In other words, puzzles occur when we have bits and pieces of information, and what we are looking for are things to fill in the gap. Mysteries, on the other hand, are areas where you have lots and lots of information. The challenge in dealing with mysteries is actually finding the relevant information to make sense in dealing with the problem.
I was reflecting on this and it occurred to me that, in my own mind, as I was trying to make sense of the concept, the whole aspect of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is actually an example of a puzzle. This is because we still don’t know a lot about ASD. There’s been lots of research that’s been done, lots of different theories, and we are still looking for information about that particular condition.
On the other hand, mysteries are the reverse. For instance, if I’m going to Japan, how do I deal with Japanese culture? There are loads of books, information, videos that you can get on how to deal with Japanese culture. The challenge though is, how do I find information that’s relevant for me to use in that particular context? This came up for me recently in a conversation I had with a potential client, because they had called me and said they wanted a briefing for their senior executive who was going on a business trip to India.
So I said, ‘Why don’t you just Google and get the information?’ Because there’s no value add for me to come in and talk about dos and don’ts, general etiquette, because that’s just general information. When we had further conversations they said, ‘Well, that’s not quite what we want. We actually want other information.’ What developed out of this, was that the information they wanted was the information that wasn’t easily available on the internet. They were looking for a deeper dive in terms of how to build relationships, and understand some of the underlying issues in Indian culture, understanding more about the caste system and the impact of religion. I said, ‘Okay. That is an area that we can add value,’ because that is actually about, pulling relevant and constructive details out of the information to help this executive be effective on their trip.
Here’s a reflection point for you. In the sort of work that you do, are you dealing with puzzles or are you in fact dealing with mysteries? If we have clarity on what we’re working with, I think it changes our approach to particular situations. It changes the type of questions we ask, and it changes the paradigm in how we approach situations.
Thank you to Malcolm Gladwell, and I hope that’s useful for your thinking.