This story is often told about Harry Houdini, the master magician whose proudest claim was that he could escape from anything. During a tour of Scotland, Houdini agreed to be locked up in the strongest jail cell available, boasting that he would escape from it.
The magician was searched, his hands placed in steel handcuffs, and he was chained to a bench in the jail cell. The jailer shut the cell door and walked away, confident that Houdini would never wrest free. Left alone, Houdini quickly shed himself of the handcuffs and the chain binding him to the bench. Then he went to work on the cell door.
He tried every trick in the book to pick the lock on the jailhouse door. After an hour, he was dripping with sweat, apparently defeated. Totally discouraged, and near exhaustion, Houdini accidentally leaned against the door and it swung open easily, sending him tumbling into the corridor. The jailer had forgotten to lock the door.
Even if this great story isn't true, it carries an important message. You can waste a lot of time and energy trying to open an unlocked door or solve a problem that someone else has already solved.
Call it reinventing the wheel, but trying to solve a problem that isn't really a problem is what you ought to call a giant exercise in futility. Before you try to spend hours looking for a solution, make sure you have a legitimate problem. In other words, don't overlook the obvious.
As a quote attributed to Henry Ford has it, "Nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs." And I would add that you also avoid making a problem even larger by taking small steps first, doing the least amount of damage. So often, a little tweaking is all it takes.
We can't all be like Sherlock Holmes, solving life's mysteries and problems by uncovering the smallest detail. But we can learn to be more observant and train ourselves to look at problems from new perspectives.
"I do not fix problems. I fix my thinking. Then problems fix themselves," said Louise Hay, the inspirational author and speaker.
I like the approach that Malcolm Gladwell espouses in "The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference." He writes: "A critic looking at these tightly focused, targeted interventions might dismiss them as Band-Aid solutions. But that phrase should not be considered a term of disparagement.
"The Band-Aid is an inexpensive, convenient and remarkably versatile solution to an astonishing array of problems. In their history, Band-Aids have probably allowed millions of people to keep working or playing tennis or cooking or walking when they would otherwise have had to stop. The Band-Aid solution is actually the best kind of solution because it involves solving a problem with the minimum amount of effort and time and cost."
In other words, don't make a mountain out of a molehill.
Here's another story: A crowded airline flight was canceled. A single agent was rebooking a long line of inconvenienced travelers. Suddenly, an angry passenger pushed his way to the desk. He slapped his ticket down on the counter and said, "I HAVE to be on this flight, and it has to be FIRST-CLASS."
The agent replied, "I'm sorry sir. I'll be happy to try to help you, but I've got to help these folks first, and I'm sure we'll be able to work something out."
The passenger was unimpressed. He asked loudly, so that the passengers behind him could hear, "Do you have any idea who I am?"
Without hesitating, the gate agent smiled and grabbed her public address microphone. "May I have your attention please?" she began, her voice bellowing throughout the terminal. "We have a passenger here at the gate who does not know who he is. If anyone can help him find his identity, please come to the gate."
Mackay's Moral: When the answer is right in front of your eyes, don't blink!