Have you ever been sitting at your desk, staring off into space, thinking, this time I’m really out of rabbits…?
Business problems tend to get complicated, fast. When money, politics, and people are wound up together in a tight, sticky knot, seemingly simple obstacles can feel impossible to overcome. Like a giant Jenga game hanging in the balance, if you slide one piece even a millimeter the whole tower could topple.
Now if you’re slightly sadistic like me, you might secretly love these moments (don’t worry, I won’t tell). You might embrace the challenge. After all, you did become an executive or an entrepreneur. So you might, just might, thoroughly enjoy a morning routine of self-flagellation.
In the moments when you’re feeling a bit like a magician trapped in a safe at the bottom of the sea, consider turning to one of these artists for a good old-fashioned brain twister. Afterwards you may feel a bit more…shall we say…open-minded?
1. Maurits Cornelis Escher, 1898–1972, The Netherlands
This master of illusion plays with dimensionality like a cat plays with a mouse. He takes no prisoners. You might as well leave your mind as-you-knew-it at the door. After meditating on an Escher image for a while you might notice the solution’s been waiting patiently next to you for hours. That is, after you pick up the pieces of your brain that exploded all over the floor.
2. Emily Dickinson, 1830–1886, United States
You cannot fold a flood; And put it in a drawer; Because the winds would find it out; And tell your cedar floor.
If you’ve ever considered that there may be an omnipotent being out there, it would be this being, and this being only, who could neatly and precisely drop a pair of fingers out of the sky and make an origami crane out of a natural disaster. The image is difficult to even conjure because of the dimensional dissonance. Folding happens in two dimensions and flooding happens in three. Five powerful words later and Dickinson has twisted our entire reality.
3. Luigi Serafini, 1949-Present, Italy
It’s hard to think of commentary worthy of this image. Maybe that’s why Luigi wrote it in a completely unintelligible language. What I will say is this — if, when you are overcome by the ecstasy of being with your lover, you imagine turning into a ferocious carnivore, I’m glad we are not married. That and, there is something eerie, almost superhuman, about seeing two human bodies fuse together, turn reptilian, and slink away.
4. Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, 1207–1273, modern-day Pakistan
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
In just one line, Rumi completely shatters our two-dimensional grid of everyday life and introduces a third dimension. He asks us to imagine depth in addition to height and width. To imagine a sphere when all along we’ve been looking at a line. As soon as the word field is encountered, our ideas of right and wrong melt away. Once we have cleared our minds of judgment there is space for new ideas to arrive.
5. Banksy, date unknown-Present, England
What I love most about the French Maid is how she invites us to imagine what may live beyond, behind, or inside this shabby wall. She lifts up a block of cement like a frilly curtain. Everything our eyes communicated to our brain about that wall was concrete, heavy, fixed…until we saw the maid. In one brush stroke a previously unmovable thing becomes light and airy. We suddenly imagine we can lift it right up and walk inside. Our organs of perception are fully activated; our senses, fully stretched.
6. Salvador Domingo Felipe Jacinto Dalí i Domènech, Marqués de Dalí de Pubol, 1904–1989, Spain
These recognizable clocks have the power we all dream of — to slow down or even stop time. In most of the world time governs modern life. It is a common language, a common currency. We all cherish it, and we are all slaves to it. This painting asks us to consider what a world liberated from the shackles of control might be like; a world out in Rumi’s field beyond wrong and right.
So, what do Escher, Dickinson, Serafini, Rumi, Banksy, and Dali, all hailing from different countries and all hailing from different centuries, have in common?
They are tricky. They are mischievous. They toy with us. They collide the left and right hemispheres of our brain into each other. They invite us to stretch in a million dimensions we never knew existed.
They also challenge the idea of certainty, a concept highly valued in the modern world. Facts, data, and evidence are currently gospel. Curiosity, in comparison, is often undervalued, especially in business. It can be seen as weak, whereas certainty denotes strength. Lori Hanau of Global Round Table Leadership articulates this dichotomy perfectly by encouraging business leaders to ask instead of telling.
Despite common perceptions, it is exactly this curious thinking, this stretched, creative, infinite thinking, that will solve the hardest business problems. In the end it’s not usually the problem holding us back anyway; it’s our limited imaginations.
After all, a wise person did once say:
“If you are trying to choose between A and B, the answer is probably C.”
I’d love to hear your thoughts!