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Aug 01, 2011

A Riddle, Truth, and Our Disposition

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Three traveling men share a motel room. The cost of the room is $30. They each give the attendant $10, and then go to their room. The attendant then decides to discount the room by $5. So, he gives the $5 (in ones) to his son to return to the men. The boy doesn’t know how to split the $5 (five one-dollar bills)  with three people. So, he gives $1 to each man, and he keeps the other $2 for himself. So, each man has now put in $9 ($10 with a $1 refund). $9 times three equals $27. The boy kept $2. What happened to the other dollar?

So that’s the riddle, right? But what fascinates me is the way people react to it. I was out to dinner in Uptown Charlotte with three couples while we discussed this riddle, and here follow the dynamics…

Two of us wanted it to stay a wonderful enigma, and we loved that the math made sense from one point of view (that $25 + $5 = $30), but didn’t from another point of view ($9 x 3 = $27 + $2 = $29). That’s what made the riddle so great. That it worked when looked at from one way, but not when looked at from another. Yet, both ways were perfectly logical and true.

Another two of us wanted to “figure it out” suggesting there is a single correct answer. The conclusion that they came to was that if they turned the math back to way that made it work (that $25 + $5 = $30), then they had figured it out, and they can stop thinking about it. They don’t have to believe that math is so simply fallible. They can see the “other way” as an illusion or a trick, and make it go away… simply by turning the math back to the way it started. When asked, “Yes, I know the original math equals $3o, BUT… $9 times three plus $2 = $29” … their response was, “But that’s a trick. $25 +$5 = $30, and that settles it.”

Another two of us didn’t really care, and wished we would change the subject.

I love that riddle because I think that it says more about the people who struggle with it than anything else. I was of the two who embraced it as a self-contradictory enigma. I argued that just turning the math around to its original framework ($30-$5=$25) doesn’t take away the fact that the other framework is just as true (that each man put in $9 and the boy kept $2, which equals $29… so, where is the other dollar?).

I often reference a little contradictory scenario that I made up that goes something like this…

If you and I were in the same room, and I extended my arm and my pointer finger, pointing to you, and I began to walk towards you, I would eventually run into you, right? That’s pretty undeniable. That’s absolutely true. As long as you don’t introduce any trickery (like moving out of the way or something), if I walk toward you, I will eventually run into you. That’s simple and true.

Yet, in the same scenario, if I halved the distance between my extended finger and you, and then I halved it again, and so on and so on, I could do that FOREVER and NEVER run into you. So, in that scenario I could move toward you forever, and I would never run into you, which is that exact opposite of the statement that if I walk toward you I will eventually run into you. THEY ARE BOTH TRUE, AND THEY DIRECTLY CONTRADICT ONE ANOTHER.

The test is how people react to this. Some people embrace its enigmatic nature. Others try to twist the second framework back to the first framework, and then say the riddle is solved (as they will not allow two contradictory things to both be true… because truth is more objective than that). And still others just wish you would change the subject.

The truth is… Truth is about perspective, and those facts that we retain as indisputable are often a simply creative ways of framing our world. AND truth is not about perspective, too. It’s about a realness beyond the observer. They’re both true.

Author Details
Jason Broadwater

Jason is a keynote speaker and project designer for economic development and community collaboration in the New Economy. Jason is also founder of RevenFlo (an internet marketing and application development company).