I once worked as a software quality assurance analyst for a pharmaceutical distribution company. My job involved developing, implementing, and monitoring policies and procedures for creating, testing, and installing the company’s software. I was privileged to work with some of the brightest people I’ve ever known, not least among them was my boss.
Before attending Temple University to pursue graduate work in philosophy, I spent two years studying philosophy at Mississippi State University. I studied logic with the late Professor Jay T. Keehley at MSU. He was an engaging, thought-provoking, and demanding, teacher. One of the things I learned from him was how to do proofs in logic.
Typically, there is more than one way to show that a conclusion follows necessarily from a given set of premises. Though they did get the job done, my attempts tended to be somewhat pedantic. They involved several steps, more than necessary. On the other hand, my teacher’s proofs were always elegant. I might require fifteen steps, for example, whereas he only needed five.
When I worked as a software QA analyst, my boss was in the same league as my logic professor. His expertise, however, was in business software, not philosophical logic. Sometimes, when I was sharing research with him, he would stop me and say, “Gershon, think horses, not zebras.” This statement was his shorthand for the adage: When you hear hoofbeats behind you, think horses, not zebras. On the whole, it is excellent advice. It is especially fitting advice in the business world, though it also can be fruitful in other areas.
Last week my wife misplaced one of her credit cards. She came to tell me that she couldn’t find it after spending a good deal of time looking for it. She was frustrated. I asked her where she usually kept it. In her wallet, she said. And where do you ordinarily keep that? In my purse, she answered, but it’s not there.
Realizing that there was no peace in my immediate future, I got up to help her look for the card. I saw her purse sitting on the couch by the window. I noticed that the window’s screen was open a few inches. Aha, I thought. I remembered a story a friend had told me of how criminals once stole things from inside her house even though all the windows had security bars covering them. And nothing indicated forced entry, neither the windows nor the house’s doors. The criminals slid an unlocked window open. They could do this since the bars covering it were wide enough to slip a hand through and reach the window. After the window was open, they used one of those devices to place or retrieve merchandise on a high shelf in a store to grab and pull things out through the window. I reasoned a thief stole my wife’s credit card using the same method. Quod erat demonstrandum! I felt quite like Sherlock, confident that I had solved the case of the missing credit card.
My practical, pragmatic wife did not buy my suggestion. She was more inclined to think that she had left the card in a store; she had been in a couple of them shopping earlier in the day. I thought my idea was far more interesting, brilliant even. Still, I could not persuade her. She can be downright stubborn at times. Drearily, I joined her in one last search of her office before she decided to retrace the steps of her morning’s shopping journey. Well, in a few minutes, she held the card up in the air and exclaimed, “I found it.” It was lying in her laptop computer under the closed screen. She had used it to pay some bills and inadvertently left it there when she shut the laptop. Dang. Foiled again, I thought.
“If it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.”Tweedledee in Through the Looking Glass, Chapter 4, Lewis Carroll
In the afternoon, I was getting some laundry off a bed in our guest bedroom. I noticed a cat lounging on the external bars covering the room’s window, enjoying the sun. Then I remembered. We had trouble a while back with a cat pushing open the sliding screen on the door leading to our backyard. I worked up a way to prevent it, and it’s proven successful, one of my few mechanical solutions that panned out. Then I put two and two together. The cat pushed aside the window screen; he didn’t come into the house, though. Why? There is living here the ever-vigilant wonder-dog, Kulfi. I’ve now secured that window as well.
After all of this, I thought of my boss and his sage advice to think of horses, not zebras. Years later, his advice is as good as ever.
One last thought: if you are a writer, a teller of tales, I want to encourage you to continue thinking of zebras. It’s incredible the stories you can write when those marvelous striped “horses” lead you. They can stimulate the spinning of great yarns.
May you and yours be safe and continue to grow in these difficult times.
All the best,