The Blind Men and The Elephant: The Answer to Humanity’s Problem Is and Always Has Been Talking to People Who See The World Differently

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For all the talk about innovation, very few people have much clarity on how it happens. And yet, when you comb through the innovations literature, you realize it comes down to one very simple principle: idea sex.



Take the work of Roy Choi.

If you don’t know Roy Choi, he’s the inventor among other things of the Korean BBQ burrito. Roy grew up in LA and worked in his family’s Korean restaurant. Roy loves Korean food. Buuuuuut, Roy is also an Angeleno and he also loves taco trucks. And so, Roy figured “Why not put these two things I love together?” It took a long-assed time to figure out how to blend two different cuisines but when he did the result was delicious. I have put a lot of Roy Choi’s idea sex in my mouth. And I liked it. I liked it a lot.

However, very often rather than having idea sex, cultures have chosen to treat each other’s respective contributions as gross. “Ewwww!!! Mexican food!!!” says the Korean. “Ewwww!!! Korean food!!!” says the Mexican. And they never get it on. Instead, they fight and argue about whose food is best. Nowhere has this been more true than in the area of religion. As a place with A LOT of religions jammed up against each other, the Indian subcontinent has had to deal with this problem more than perhaps any other place in the world. Long ago, they came up with a simple story to capture this problem. It’s the story of the blind men and the elephant. A group of blind men come up to an object (spoiler alert: it’s an elephant) and decide to figure out what it is.

The first blind man feels the end of the tail and decides they’ve found a rope.

The second blind man feels the trunk and decides they’ve found a snake.

The third blind man feels the tusk and decides they’ve found a spear.

And on and on.

John Godfrey Saxe wrote a poem about this story and the ending is a nice summary of the experience of Facebook, Twitter or pretty much any other social media today:

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!


So, oft in theologic wars
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean;
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

Now, what WE should do is say “Hey! How weird?!? We’re all talking about the same thing (the world) but we’ve reached totally different conclusions. Why would anyone think this was anything but a snake? I can feel it wriggling.” We could compare notes and we could see that while each of their conclusions kind of makes sense there are actually far better ones to be reached by having #ideasex with their neighbors. Instead though, we fight and beat each other and in some versions of the “story” kill each other. In practice, while this story is about “religion” it’s actually a general description about culture. As those of you who have earned your white belt in Mixed Mental Arts know, culture binds and blinds. When things don’t seem to fit, our first thought is all too often to dispute “loud and long” and each in our opinion be “exceeding stiff and strong” even though each of us is partly in the right and all of us are wrong. The interesting question though when things don’t fit is “What if we put these two things together?!?”

Roy Choi didn’t just slap Korean and Mexican food together to make the Korean BBQ burrito. Combining cuisines so they harmonize takes patient experimentation. And it takes a strong, trusting relationship. And nowhere is that more obvious than in Michael Lewis’ superb book The Undoing Project. Together, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky did work that would win Kahneman a Nobel Prize. However, the innovation only lasted as long as the relationship. When Tversky started taking more of the credit, it all fell apart and they both lost. The goose that laid the golden eggs wasn’t either of them; it was the relationship between them.



We now know why. Social intelligence–the ability to learn from each other–is humanity’s superpower. And that’s how humanity really makes progress. Instead of fighting over who sees the “elephant” more clearly now, we should compare notes so we can ALL see the elephant more clearly in the future. For anyone who is interested in doing that, there’s a community. It’s called Mixed Mental Arts. And whether you currently think the world is a rope, a snake, a spear, a fan, a wall or a set of four logs we want you in our tribe. Because we know that even if things don’t seem to fit together initially that it’s when you resolve out those differences that innovation emerges. What happens when we talk out our differences? We get cool shit!!! Like the Korean BBQ burrito and amazing insights into human thinking that win the Nobel Prize and Apple Computers. Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs didn’t think the same. One was a computer engineer and one was a guy who liked beautiful objects. Together, they made something better than either would have come up with on their own. They made computers that were beautiful objects.

The answer to humanity’s problems has always been us. It’s when you have two broken pieces that don’t seem to fit together that you have to fill in the cracks with gold. That’s how you make kintsugi.

There’s a lot of cool stuff waiting out there and the only way any of us gets it is by talking out our differences. That’s how we make humanity smarter than ever before.

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Right after being born in Saudi Arabia, I was taken to the Callen house. Since then, Bryan and I have travelled the world with our Citibank fathers and somehow ended up in LA together. There we’d run into each other at family gatherings and do something that no one else in LA seemed to be doing: we talked about books. Since Bryan was kind of a big deal, Hunter and Bryan hatched a scheme to use his podcast to get on their favorite authors and professors. Out of that evolved Mixed Mental Arts and this tribe. For me, the marriage of entertainment and education is a return to how things used to be before our culture split story into two separate things. It’s exciting to be able to build on the work Katie O’Brien and I did for The Straight-A Conspiracy and expand it out to every area of life. While I play a series of roles in the Mixed Mental Arts community (including Shitty Dutch Uncle and Bryan’s #1 fan) my favorite role is as Toto who pulls back the curtain and let’s the world see that there are no wizards…only men and women who try and puff themselves up to seem important.

One Comment

  1. Shawn Kilburn Reply

    My book club just read THE UNDOING PROJECT. What a great book! I’m a big fan of THINKING, FAST AND SLOW, too, but THE UNDOING PROJECT packages those ideas up in a slightly more story-driven, much shorter story.

    Thanks for writing this!

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