MAURER: Riddle of creativity not easy to solve

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Mickey MaurerI am taking a hiatus from this column until sometime next year in order to complete a book. Our editors will publish a favorite column once a month. This one is from 2000.

Cousin David visited this weekend.

David and I enjoy sharing riddles. His latest offering had been presented to a number of highly intelligent scientists and, remarkably, many of them had difficulty with the solution. David thinks it’s because intelligence and creativity are not necessarily correlative. He should know.

David is an experimental nuclear physicist whose research probes the fundamental nature of matter at very small, distant scales. He has been cited as a remarkably creative innovator. He has led research in atomic physics associated with exotic atoms, the interactions of antimatter with matter to produce strange matter (hyperons and anti-hyperons), the fundamental symmetries in T and CP invariance, the search for exotic particles, and high-precision tests of electroweak physics. If you don’t understand what I just said, it really doesn’t matter.

David posed this problem. A man is sentenced to die but he is given one chance for freedom. He is sent down a hallway to a single door. Next to the door are three light switches marked on/off. The door leads to a room in which a man with a revolver is sitting on a chair. There is one light bulb hanging from a cord in the middle of the room. The condemned man cannot see in the room from the hall. There are no windows to the room. He cannot converse with the man in the room while in the hall. He may flick any or all of the switches as much as he wants, but only before he opens the door.

Within three minutes, he must enter the room and inform the executioner in the chair which switch operates the bulb—switch one, two or three. If he is correct, he goes free. If he is incorrect, he is immediately executed. Can you help the condemned man?

I believe there are two solutions to the riddle. If you can discover either one, perhaps there will be a position for you in David’s lab. At the very least, you will have demonstrated that you possess an important indicator of success in business—creativity.

I have a riddle of my own. Why is there not a greater correlation between intelligence and success in business? Sometimes the answer is obvious. We all know very bright people who do not commit the time and energy necessary for success. In other cases, perhaps the low correlation is due to the presence of so many other factors: focus, nerve and luck to name a few. The non-fiction best-seller list invariably contains catchy titles offering key factors to success. Intelligence is hardly ever mentioned.

Calvin Coolidge said persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. I disagree. The answer to my riddle couples David’s observation that intelligence and creativity are not tandem characteristics with the solid evidence of a strong connection between creativity (psychologists often refer to this characteristic as “the ability to think outside the box”) and business success.

Creativity cannot be taught. In fact , the mechanism may not even exist to accurately test creativity at the basic intelligence level. According to David, one needs to “exercise” creativity to increase it—like muscle tone. We need to seize opportunities to think creatively. Challenging riddles like the one above interrupt the normal routine and rev up our brains.

David and I agree that, whether in the office or in the physics lab, intelligence is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition to assure success. Add creativity and chances for success are greatly enhanced. Without it, you may fare no better than the condemned man in David’s riddle. If you have any questions with regard to the riddle or wish to offer a solution, email me at the address below.

Update: Cousin David is a professor of physics at the University of Washington and the chair of the United States Nuclear Science Advisory Committee. He is also co-leader of 150 physicists in a major experiment at the Fermi Lab in Chicago that could lead to a major scientific breakthrough.•


Maurer is a shareholder in IBJ Corp., which owns Indianapolis Business Journal. He can be reached at

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