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Is It Comprehensive?
posted by admin on 07/09/06

Comprehensive thinking searchers beyond the first “right” answer to find the “best” solution.

While clarity and accuracy provide a correct picture, when the focus of our thoughts becomes misplaced, our thinking can miss the mark entirely, as illustrated by the Metropolitan Museum of Art art experts who failed to realize they had a genuine van Gogh on their hands. William Goetz made enough money in Hollywood to allow him to dabble in expensive art. In the years following World War Two he purchased in Europe a self-portrait by Vincent van Gogh, Study in Candlelight, for about $50,000 and brought it to the United States. A van Gogh relative later claimed his uncle never painted the work. Goetz, not wanting to lose the entire investment on one person’s word, commissioned four experts associated with New York’s prestigious Metropolitan Museum of Art to examine the work. In the end, they seriously doubted the painting’s authenticity for a variety of reasons.

 Despite this setback, the ever resourceful Goetz shipped his painting outside the United States and then reimported it. As expected, the Customs Service sought to collect a $5,000 tariff because only original art could come into the country duty-free. As he had planned all along, Goetz declined to pay the tariff on grounds the painting was an original van Gogh, thus forcing customs officials to tackle the question of  authenticity. On examining the piece, customs experts spotted Japanese character writing among the details of the portrait. Treated as unimportant by the museum experts, these characters contained mistakes identical to similar errors made by van Gogh in other works of undisputed authenticity. They proved the metropolitan’s experts wrong!!

 Looking beyond the superficial, the customs experts peered deep into the details and then took a broad view, asking whether those details were consistent with van Gogh’s era and life experience. They examined the whole scene, both the trees and the forest. By thinking both deep and wide, their comprehensive analysis solved the problem. Comprehensive thought, deep and wide thinking, leads to greater wisdom than shallow, narrow thinking. The principle dates back to the beginnings of recorded history.

 During his many years as king, Solomon advanced Israel’s power and prestige beyond anything the nation achieved either before or since. His reign, beginning in about 970 B.C., remains unexcelled in peace and prosperity. Indeed, his name meant “peace” in Hebrew.

 Best remembered for his unrelenting pursuit of wisdom, Solomon authored over 3,000 proverbs, many of which continue to influence thing today. According to Biblical records, Solomon possessed “great insight, and a breadth of understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore.” Widely admired for his thinking skills, people traveled long distances to obtain Solomon’s thoughts.

 One event stands out as history’s most vivid memory of Solomon’s wisdom, his brilliant handling of dispute between two prostitutes. In Solomon’s day, many prostitutes were slaves sold into harlotry by their own parents. By any measure, the two prostitutes who entered Solomon’s Court of Justice that day ranked very low on the social ladder. But Solomon personally rendered justice to all his people, no matter their station in life.

 The women brought with them two infants, one living and one dead. Each woman claimed to be the rightful mother of the living child. One told the king: “This woman and I live in the same house. I had a baby while she was there with me. The third day after my child was born, this woman also had a baby. We were alone; there was no one in the house but the two of us. During the night this woman’s son died because she lay on him. So she got up in the middle of the night and took my son from my side while I was asleep. She put him by her breast and put her dead son by my breast. The next morning, I got up to nurse my son, and he was dead! But when I looked at him closely in the morning light, I saw that it wasn’t the son I had borne.” The other woman vehemently denied this claim, calling the whole story a lie fabricated to steal her child.

 Solomon face one of the most difficult cases imaginable brought by two disreputable people on utterly contradictory facts. Neither woman could corroborate her story or prove the other woman a liar. Instead of casting lots to decide this perplexing matter, Solomon looked deep into the motives of the two women in an effort to uncover a clue to the truth. He also took a wider view, considering how genuinely honest mothers would behave in such circumstances. Solomon wrapped his mind around the whole problem.

 “Bring me a sword!” the king commanded. “Cut the living child in two and give half to one and half to the other.” The roman historian Josephus reports that people standing nearby openly “laughed” at Solomon’s decree. But one of the two women instinctively begged for mercy. “Please, my lord, give her the living baby! Don’t kill him!” the other woman only retorted, “Neither I nor you shall have him. Cut him in two!”

 With one bold mental stroke, Solomon exposed the deepest motivations of both women and from there inferred the truth. While he could not know truth with absolute certainty, he knew enough to feel certain of his thinking. Solomon gave the baby to the woman who begged for mercy. While no contemporary judge would resort to such a method to discover the truth, we do appreciate the underlying brilliance of Solomon’s approach. The Bible says, “When all Israel heard the verdict the king had given, they held him in awe, because they saw he had wisdom from God to administer justice.” Solomon’s comprehensive thinking, like a mighty river, ran both deep and wide.

 The word “comprehensive” shares the same root as “comprehend.” To mentally grasp something fully, we must probe the depths, heights, and breadth - the past, present, future, front, back, inside, outside, up, down, all sides. Comprehensive thinking searchers beyond the first “right” answer to find the “best” solution. It explores beneath superficial explanations and conventional wisdom, and considers situations individually and as part of a larger whole. It thinks in many directions.

 You can achieve the deepest and widest perspectives by asking comprehensive questions. Such questions might include:

  Does this thing reach the roots of the problem?

  • Does it approach the matter from multiple perspectives?
  • Does it appreciate possible complexities?
  • Does it oversimplify things?
  • Have I formed conclusions too soon?
  • Is this the best solution?
  • What biases might adversely affect this thinking?
  • How does this situation interrelate with the broader context in which it occurs?
  • Does this thinking exhaust all significant possibilities?

I test the comprehensiveness of others’ thinking by asking questions and making statements, such as:

  • Give me your insights.
  • Let’s approach this from a different angle.
  • Have you taken too narrow a view?
  • What have you done to eliminate or guard against bias here?
  • How does this fit into the larger scheme of things?
  • Tell me how others view this situation.
  • Have you checked with all the stakeholders here?
  • Tell me what you’ve done to try and come up with a better solution than this.

By Charles W. Mc Coy, Jr.  author of the book : "Why didn't I think of That?"


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