Unconventional Thinking

Years ago I stayed at a pub in Melbourne. I went down to the bar and had a drink while I was waiting for a colleague to join me for dinner. I ordered a beer at the bar and took a sip whilst looking around familiarising myself. All seemed to be pretty standard until I looked at the clock on the rear wall. For a moment or two I had the disconcerting feeling that something was wrong but it wasn’t immediately apparent. (I am not the most observant person in the world!) But then it dawned on me the clock face was laid out in the mirror image of a conventional clock. I could see the second hand progressing in an anticlockwise fashion and the numbers 1 through to 6 (in Roman Numerals) ran progressively down the left side of the clock from top to bottom! The clock seemed to be working just fine and I checked with my watch that it was indeed keeping good time. But it still produced an uneasy feeling in my stomach!

Surely all clocks should obey the convention of having their hands sweep the dial in a clockwise manner? We get accustomed to such conventions and hardly ever query them.

Some examples of such asymmetry of course are entirely natural. We know, because of the effects of the earth’s rotation, that the spiralling winds of cyclones that we experience in Australia, and indeed anywhere in the Southern Hemisphere also revolve in a clockwise direction. In the Northern Hemisphere they rotate in an anti-clockwise direction.

This is due to a physical phenomenon known as Coriolis’s Force. When we were at university the lecturers assured us that this ubiquitous force would ensure that when we pulled the plug out of the bath tub the water would disappear down the drainhole progressing in a clockwise manner in the Southern Hemisphere but in an anti-clockwise manner in the Northern Hemisphere. They were of course wrong! Coriolis’s force is rather weak and in the average bath tub can be easily overcome by physical and environmental effects. But at the scale of cyclones it has considerable force and is easily able to assert itself.

But you might wonder why this convention of “clockwise” motion came to be. Well the simple explanation is it arose from the physical properties of sundials.

In order for a horizontal sundial to work (in the Northern Hemisphere) it must be positioned facing southward. Then when the sun moves in the sky from east to west but somewhat displaced to the south, the shadow thrown by the gnomon (which is the fixed vertical part) will move from the west, to the north and then to the east. This progression is what we call clockwise. When clocks were developed they followed the same convention. Of course on a Northern Hemisphere sundial the shadow only moves across the northern face and for something less than 180 degrees, that part that the gnomon’s shadow traverses when illuminated daily by the sun. On a clock face the progression has been extrapolated to the full 360 degrees.

Now a similar sundial in the Southern Hemisphere, if it is to work, must face northward. And if you work through the reasoning above that means that the shadow progresses across the face in an anti-clockwise direction! Of course the first sundials were invented in the Northern Hemisphere. The oldest that we are aware of was located in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings and is reputed to have been constructed circa 1500BC! As a result those northerners stole a march on us southerners and thus imposed on us the direction of rotation of clocks. If we had been true to our geographical determinants the clock I saw in the Melbourne pub would have been the norm in the Southern Hemisphere rather than an aberration.

Our societies adopt different conventions which often prevail long after the original reason initiating them has lost its relevance.

Take for example on which side of the road we drive. It initially seems an arbitrary choice and practice differs around the world. But history suggests that the decision was largely made before the advent of motor cars. It is also a convention, at least in Britain and the countries it ruled in its far-flung empire, which depends (as do others) on the dominance of right-handedness in humans.

Prior to the automobile of course, the principal traffic on roads was horses. Before the widespread use of stirrups, a right-handed person normally stood to the left of the horse so as to use the dominant hand on the pommel of the saddle to hoist themselves aboard. Even when stirrups became common it was usual for (right-handed people) to grasp the reins in the left hand and the pommel on the right. As a result of this the horse was usually positioned on the left side of the road with the rider mounting from the left. Once on board the animal set off down the road on the left-hand side.

If a rider had to defend himself (or herself, less likely,) he or she was also better positioned. Again for a right-hander the sword was usually carried on the left. Potential aggressors approaching on the road would be on your right side so that you could draw your sword with your preferred hand and fend them off.

Of course this put those folk who were naturally disposed to be left-handed at a disadvantage! It is said that Napoleon changed the preferred side of the road in France from left to right in deference to the peasants. The more cynical have suggested that it might have been due to more selfish motives since Napoleon was left-handed! (As a fellow left-hander, I can only bemoan the fact that he didn’t take an interest in the design of scissors.)

It is commonplace in society for us to make decisions and establish conventions which endure and which are then seldom questioned. In fact often the convention becomes so entrenched that there is a huge vested interest supporting it which makes questioning very difficult for non-conventional thinkers. Organisations of all sorts fall prey to this dilemma. We end up doing things because that’s the way we’ve always done it and those that question are just troublemakers. Remember how tough it was for Galileo to convince others to take a more objective look at our solar system when the prevailing belief propagated by the church was that the earth was at the centre.

Once I was a speaker at a conference on paradigm change where I advocated strongly for challenging the conventional wisdom. At the end of my session one of the delegates came up to chat. It turned out that he worked for a rail authority. It intrigued him that in his state the lights attached to the boom gates at level crossings were (at that time) on swivels whereas everywhere else he travelled they were fixed at the end of the booms. A little research showed him that before electric lighting was ubiquitous, the light at the end of the boom had been a hurricane lamp. Consequently it had needed to be affixed to the boom by a swivel so that when the boom was raised the lamp remained vertical. When electric lights were introduced they merely replaced the hurricane lamp at the end of the swivel even though the electric light would have operated perfectly no matter its orientation!

Some years ago, I remember reading how in the Napoleonic Wars the British Government created a position for someone to man a bonfire on the cliffs of Dover. His job was to light the bonfire if he saw the French fleet approaching so that the British might prepare for an attempt at invasion. Apparently that job was only abolished sometime in the 1940’s.You might find if you look through unconventional eyes some such jobs in your organisation!

When I studied economics, I was particularly attracted to the books of J K Galbraith. This was not so much because of his economic insights but because he was a witty commentator, wrote well and drew on a wealth of experience, not the least of which was serving as Roosevelt’s economics adviser during World War II. In his book The Affluent Society, he coined the term “conventional wisdom”. He used this term pejoratively to describe those commonplace beliefs that are acceptable and comfortable to society. Conventional wisdom serves towards staving off challenges to the status quo, and is used by traditionalists to enhance their ability to resist facts that might diminish them.

Many conventions are useful to society including those that determine all our clocks should rotate their hands in the same manner (or at least the diminishing number that use analogue technology) and that we should all drive on the same side of the road. But society advances more by having its conventions challenged than by mindless acceptance. That is why I am a champion of “unconventional wisdom” and a lifelong supporter of those who would challenge the status quo.


7 Replies to “Unconventional Thinking”

  1. Ted,
    I am sure the personality types have a bearing here. The conventional ISTJ engineer often will analyse in a straight line and get no sense at all, while those of us (me being INTP) with unconventional “parallel” thinking can often make much more sense out of some vexing problem. Then of course the difficulty is then how to communicate this unconventional thought into something that the straight line person (or organisation) can understand becomes somewhat difficult.

  2. Ted

    When you start looking, most of our rules in society are for the 2% (who generally don’t follow them anyway). In practical terms, all most rules do is become an impediment to the 98% of people who don’t need them anyway.

    Now there is an area for applying unconventional thinking.

  3. Ted, your comments also apply to why certain things are illegal and others not. If one delves into the history of why a certain item is illegal, one often finds a vested interest supporting what has become a conventional law. Marijuana for example.

  4. Ted, time for us lefties to rise up against the conventional wisdom of our time. There are a number of things that challenge me as a molly dooker beyond scissors 🙂 The statistic I hear is that 22% of the global population are left handers – it’s time for ALL design to incorporate a left handed solution.

    1. Nice sentiment Noel – but don’t be too hasty! My left-handedness entitles me to belong to a minority. Part of the joy of belonging to a minority is that you can always complain how the rest of the world is prejudiced against you! It would be hard to maintain such a stance if the world actually bent over to accommodate us.

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