MAURER: Exercise your brain with problem solving

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Mickey MaurerBert and Ernie, old friends who haven’t seen each other for a long time, meet at the counter of a City Market luncheonette to catch up.

“I remember you have three boys,” Bert said. “How old are they?” Ernie replied, “The product of their ages is 36 and the sum of their ages is today’s date.” Bert thought it over a moment and responded, “But that is not enough information to allow me to determine the ages of your boys.”

So Ernie added, “Oh, I forgot to tell you, my youngest son now eats sushi.”

“Now I know how old your three sons are,” Bert exclaimed. How did Bert determine the ages of Ernie’s three boys?

I have written a book based upon a series of columns I wrote last year titled, “Ten Essential Principles of Entrepreneurship You Never Learned in School.” It should hit the market by late November. No, this is not a shameless sales promotion. That will probably come later in the year.

In the book I relate dozens of stories about many entrepreneurs, including Jeff Smulyan (Emmis Communications), Alan Cohen (Finish Line), Martha Hoover (Patachou), and Scott Dorsey (ExactTarget). In the course of interviewing these interesting people I discovered commonalities, many of which are chronicled in the book. At least one is not. These remarkable people are problem solvers—they enjoy it and they are good at it.

Perhaps if we learned some basic techniques, some common steps, we could all improve our problem-solving ability. If you have difficulty solving the riddle set forth above, follow these guidelines.

1. Gather and categorize data. In this case, make a table of all possibilities of the product of three ages equaling 36. Since the three numbers add up to the date of the Bert and Ernie meeting, it would be helpful to have a separate column of the sum of those three numbers.

If you complete the table you will determine that there are eight possibilities of the product of three positive integers equaling 36.

2. Observe. Note that one of the products (1x1x36) adds up to 38. Since the sum of the ages is equal to Bert and Ernie’s meeting date and no month has more than 31 days, that possibility can be eliminated. Other observations may lead you to the solution right away. If not, proceed to step No. 3.
Mickey puzzle
3. Put the problem down for awhile. I don’t know why that works, but it works for me. When I approach a problem or a column after I have had an opportunity to rest it awhile, I have a fresh look—better insight and intuition.

4. Find the insight. This is the magic step. Insight comes into the above problem when you determine what information is really conveyed by Ernie when he talks about his youngest son’s culinary achievement. Surely the sushi has nothing to do with the primary inquiry. The insight—the flash of light—comes when you determine exactly what really is important in Ernie’s last sentence and overlay that on the data you collected.

It is important to “exercise” problem solving to improve your intuition—like muscle tone. Challenging riddles like the one above interrupt the normal routine and rev up our brains. Seize opportunities to think creatively. Intelligence is a necessity, but not a sufficient condition to assure success. Add creativity and chances for success are greatly enhanced.

If you have any questions regarding the riddle or want to offer a solution, e-mail me at the address below.•


Maurer is a shareholder in IBJ Corp., which owns Indianapolis Business Journal.His column appears every other week. To comment on this column, send e-mail to

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