How many people does it take to turn on a light bulb?

January 27, 2015

My job takes me on the road a lot. That means I get to see a lot of cool places and meet tons of people but it also means that I have a lot of airport and airplane downtime.

After I realized that Angry Birds was dominating a bit too much of that downtime, I decided to find a new app that may actually stimulate a few of my brain cells while in airplane mode. So I downloaded a new app – What’s the Word – where you’re shown four pictures and you have to guess the one-word answer of what they all have in common using a random set of provided letters. I happily enjoyed the game for many trips, breezing through one puzzle after the other. Then, I hit a wall. I reached a set of four pictures (see exhibit A!) that baffled me for several trips and many minutes (yes, entire MINUTES!) waiting on airport runways.

Of course, like so many apps these days, if you get stuck, you can get help by forking over a buck or two. But who wants to pay a few bucks for that when you could buy something important like the latest Taylor Swift song from iTunes instead?! I was reaching the point where it felt like I was never going to get past this and was either going to have to A) give in and pay a few bucks for some hints or B) totally admit defeat and delete the app.

While some solid “heads-down time” can spark ideas and create a great lightbulb, collaboration is often what finally flips the switch to "on" for that bulb.

For a while I just ignored this first-world problem. Then, while in Chengdu, China during a long ride back from research (to a hot pot restaurant!), I happened to remember my conundrum and showed the four photos to my traveling companions. Within a few moments, one of them said, “Well, they are all ‘soft’, did you try that?” And that … was … it. A lightbulb that had been long turned off was back on again. I was thrilled but also a bit embarrassed. How could something that had plagued and perplexed me for hours be so easily solvable by someone in just minutes? Why didn’t I think of that?

So what’s the point of this drawn out memoir about a picture of a stuffed animal, cola, a bath sponge and soap? Despite the fact that I work at a design firm where we expound the importance of collaboration and diversity on teams, I wasn’t practicing what we preach. We can get so wrapped up in our own heads (and egos) that we can’t imagine that someone else could help us find the way. While some solid “heads-down time” can spark ideas and create a great lightbulb (so to speak), collaboration is often what finally flips the switch to “on” for that bulb and makes an idea shine. It took this seemingly insignificant moment to remind me to reach out, ask for help, and feel a bit embarrassed so that the bulb can burn a bit brighter.