I was chatting with my seven-year-old, Keller this morning as I watched him try to open a large jar of animal crackers. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my confusion sparked by the fact that cookies in the shape of circus animals could be downgraded on the pre-diabetic scale to crackers. Keller was struggling to open the jar and asked for my help. As a Dad, it can be tough to balance wanting to immediately solve problems for your kids and keeping them immersed in difficult situations that serve as a stimulus for growth. These moments are how we exercise creative thinking and perseverance, which are two of the most important skills that anyone can learn. They cannot be taught. They must be experienced, negotiated and overcome independently. Keller innocently asked me to open the jar, and my first reaction was to grab the jar and open it. I paused and told him that he was likely one try away from opening it. He went back to the jar, tried again and popped it open. He didn’t prove a long-unsolved mathematical conjecture or eradicate world hunger, but he did close the loop on a personal challenge staring him in the face. These small wins create patterns that build confidence and the willingness to stay with something difficult and uncomfortable. Josh Waitzken riffs on a concept with his son that he calls going around, which acknowledges the obstacle while working patiently to navigate it.
Most of us run away from the uncertain, avoid questioning the status quo, or assume that other people will always tackle the impossible. It is the space between what we know and what we are willing to seek. It is the radiant collection of potential in the gradient between the things we know as time-stamped truth. Leonardo da Vinci painted with a technique called Sfumato that was his mechanism for describing in detail that which was undefinable. He crafted the visual potential of interactions between objects or figures. The root of Sfumato is
Scientists explain things as they relate to other things, and in most experiments, something undefined is compared to something known. The information in between those two states is a potential response to the hypothesis. Sometimes we miss the shades in between and wrongly assume a solution is far from tangible access. It’s often there, but we can’t see it. The answer can also be hidden by the labels of truth and falsehood.
“Statements of science are not of what is true and what is not true, but statements of what is known to different degrees of certainty … every one of the concepts of science is on a scale graduated somewhere between, but not at either end of, absolute falsity or absolute truth.”Richard Feynman from The Pleasure of Finding Things Out
Problems are solutions cluttered and masked by fixed mindsets, ego-protecting self-preservation and lack of empathy. Truth-seeking breaks down barriers that feed creative perspectives and unencumbered progress. Even the most complicated and unruly endeavors can be divided into smaller, manageable tasks. Thinking big is wonderful, but acting small is progress. Being able to look at a highly complex problem, diagnose it and parse it into less daunting pieces is a superpower. You don’t need to find the answer at the beginning. Just find the next step.
Small moments usually tell larger stories. Keller’s action led me to think more deeply on how we engage or avoid challenges. Be willing to stay with something especially if it’s frustrating. Even if you don’t find what you think you were looking for, you are building something wonderful with each effort. Be intentional in your observations of the world around you, as many answers lie in the Sfumato. It all begins with action, but it is colored by intention.