The 5 Blind Men And Other Myths Of Innovation

What an ancient Indian folk tale teaches us about truth and creativity.

Bill Gates in his foreword to Edison and the Rise of Innovation writes:

"Edison consciously built on ideas from predecessors as well as contemporaries. And just as important, he assembled a team of people—engineers, chemists, mathematicians, and machinists—that he trusted and empowered to carry out his ideas. Names like Batchelor and Kruesi may not be famous today, but without their contributions, Edison might not be either."

I couldn't agree more. All people—and disciplines—access the world through their own perspectives, carrying narratives and baggage they do and do not see.

Our upbringings, our education, our disciplines shape us as we shape them. This snowflake-like individuality showcases how each person has a unique potential, yes, but also a unique ignorance; we cannot escape our own perspectives. Which is why, if we want to do good work—and particularly if we want to innovate—we need to have ‘other.’

I love learning from ancient stories. Let's explore the story of The Five Blind Men to understand why the only way to see our biases is through other people.

The Five Blind Men

Hundreds and hundreds of years ago in India, there was a village that had five wise men. The townspeople would come to them with their problems: who to marry, when to harvest, how to prepare for the winter. The thing is, these were old men, and the state of ocular medicine wasn't great, so it ended up that each of them was blind.

This wasn't a problem—after all, one doesn't need to be sighted to have a sound picture of ethics—until one day a creature that they had heard about all of their lives came to town: an elephant. They had all heard of an elephant before, but even when each was young, he hadn't seen one. (Travel back then was hard, remember?) So, as wisdom-rich elders tend to be, they were curious about what an elephant was.

So they fanned out to approach the large beast. Each elder approached the elephant on his own. Soon they were examining the animal by hand: one playing with the trunk, another holding the tusk, another touching its leg, another touching its stomach, and the last holding its tail.

As you might imagine, they all came to very different conclusions about the nature of the elephant: the man holding the trunk thought an elephant to be snake-like; the tusk, sword-like; the leg, tree-like; the stomach, whale-like; and the tail, reed-like. While each elder, in his infinite, hard-earned wisdom, touched the elephant, each elder had a categorically different experience of what an elephant really was, what the truth of an elephant might be. Each elder had a totally direct—but totally limited— understanding of what an elephant was.

This story is as timeless as it is timely. In this traditional tale of the Indian Subcontinent, the elephant in the room is truth. And every tradition—be it religiously, scholarly, or technical—has a different set of hands on the elephant. Which means that while we're all uniquely gifted, we're also uniquely limited.

The Lesson

While we all have a staggering amount of information around us all of the time, we rarely have any awareness of the limits of our perspectives, the extent of our biases, the size of our blind spots. (Ever notice how most Silicon Valley startups seem to solve problems particular to software engineers living in the Bay Area?) No matter how smart we might be, how well read we are, how many countries we've visited, or how many cuisines we can name the primary dishes of, we still can only be ourselves. And part of being yourself is being an individual. And part of being an individual is having a perspective. And part of having a perspective is admitting that there are things you don't see.

What we need, then, is to have people around us that have their hands on other parts of the elephant. If my company is almost wholly composed of engineers, then we won't be very good at making products for people who aren't. If everyone on my team is a guy, then we'll have biases we can't even begin to name. If we're going to bring a more nuanced product design in the foreground, we need to have teams with more diverse backgrounds.

So what's the lesson here? The only way that we can deal with our blind spots is to find people who have different ones. With that kind of complimentary contrast, we can get a better understanding of the elephant in question.

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[Imge: Flickr user Zeevveez]

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4 Comments

  • Pheelyp Aytona

    Forward or foreword?

    I love how clearly and engaging written the article is.

  • Rajesh Savji Parmar

    In other words there literally is no I in team....its a good analogy but stating the obvious, however the obvious sometimes needs to be clear and present and told repeatedly for it to be seen. Relevant to all sectors NOT just the tech world which is the slant that comes across very strongly in this article...regards

  • Dale Holan

    Great way of putting it! I'd say one of the struggles with surrounding yourself with alternative perspectives would be to have those people understand this concept as well. Having a different perspective is often harder day to day than being one who tows the line.