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#35: How do you get an elephant into a refrigerator?

How do you get an elephant into a refrigerator?

It’s a question to which you get two fundamentally different answers, depending on whether you ask a child or an adult. At some point in time–and I don’t yet know exactly when or why–something changes in cognition. Away from a simple yet creative, solution-oriented view of the world, to a constrained way of thinking held to the narrowly defined boundaries of an imagined reality.

I recently spent time in Frankfurt with a friend. On the side of the road, two children about seven or eight years old had set up a table and were selling something. I don’t always have the energy and desire to stop, listen to a story, and politely decline. Saying no is hard for me, especially when someone does mean well.

But the two girls had a special charisma that drew us both out of our conversation and into its spell. They had greeting cards on offer, handmade, actually just one last card. For three hours they’d stood there and now wanted to sell the one card and go home.

Is that good or bad from a sales point of view? No sign of added value for the buyer, but plenty of emotions to get the tears flowing. These poor children have been standing there for three hours, wanting to go home. I desired to put them out of their misery. But not right away. I asked them what they would buy with the money. They didn’t know yet, wanted to save for something big. 

I looked at the remaining card, half torn in the upper third and minimalistically drawn. How much does it cost? We’d have to decide ourselves. Clever, these kids! We check and see how much change we still have, three euros in total.

The girls thank us and explain the card. It’s a crocodile! There is the eye, and there is the mouth with teeth. Oh, it’s not torn at all! It’s crazy how differently children think sometimes. I remember a time before smartphones, before the Internet and before the television (which also came rather late in our home). We had the greatest adventures with the simplest things!

What are we doing to children, what are we taking away from them when we clip their creativity? When we no longer buy Lego as a box of uniform bricks, but a set of customized pieces with building instructions? When games have clear objectives and their outcome is not as open-ended as limitless creativity?

With the card in hand, I thought about the question with the elephant. I had often heard about the different answers children and adults give, but had never tried it myself on kids.

So I asked the girls the question. And got the answer I’d expected. Although I knew the experiment, I was still amazed and impressed by the matter-of-fact-ness of the kids’ answer. I told them that adults don’t answer the question that way and that I hope they never completely let go of this wonderful ability.

Maybe something will stick in their subconscious.

So how do you get an elephant into a refrigerator? Open the door, put in the elephant, close the door. Sometimes life can be so simple.


Yours, Ulrich

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