Another short and sweet riddle goes like this: “In some states, you cannot take a picture of a man with a wooden leg. Why not?”
What on earth could be special about a man with a wooden leg, that would prohibit you from taking pictures of him? Is it even possible that a person with a wooden leg could be harmed or offended by having his photo taken, more so than a person without a wooden leg? Well, here’s the clue: the previous sentences are all red herrings.
Since this is a word puzzle, we are not really interested in obscure and strange laws in some states (though they really exist, and some are a riddle unto themselves!). Rather, we need to find the answer inside the riddle itself. The egg riddle is a close cousin of this one, although this riddle has some extra details designed to lure you down the wrong path.
If you can’t think of a legitimate reason why you should not be able to take a picture of a man with a wooden leg in some states when you can in others, take a moment to consider two things:
The different meanings and connotations of the word “cannot”
The structure of the riddle and what it’s actually asking you—is there an ambiguity of phrasing there that, when identified, will reveal that you’ve been assuming one meaning when the riddle is assuming another?
For those who can’t wait any longer to hear the answer, it’s this:
Q: In some states, you cannot take a picture of a man with a wooden leg. Why not?
A: You can never take a picture of a man with a wooden leg in any state, or indeed a picture of a woman or anything else. That’s because you can’t use a wooden leg to take pictures with—you’ll need a camera.
Have you ever seen a two-dimensional drawing of a cube, and simply by “flipping” your visual perspective, made the cube appear to be going into the paper or else coming out of the paper? The cube stays the same and is always two dimensional, but the way we see and interpret the marks on the page changes. This is profound—the solution is in our way of seeing and comprehending, and not in any innate characteristics of the phenomenon we see in front of us. We tend to think of problem solving as cleverly manipulating objects in the world, whether those objects are ideas, limitations, deadlines, etc. But it’s probably more accurate to say deep problem solving occurs in the opposite way: the problem itself stays exactly as it is, and it is we who move and change around it, until we can see the perspective we need to.
Getting why this riddle works is like that moment when you switch perspective and the cube “pops” out of the page before your very eyes—but put your old eyes on again and the cube will go back to what it was.
Our final riddle in the mental obstacle course this book has attempted to set up goes like this: “A cowboy rides into town on Friday, stays for just three nights, and then leaves on Friday—how is this possible?”
Yes, all the same word and language tricks apply here; can you spot them already?
Of course, it’s one hundred percent impossible to go to a place, stay there for three nights, and then leave a week later. Let’s scratch off the list any possible solutions that assume this could be achieved somehow, i.e. no faster-than-light interdimensional time travel and no funny business with parallel universes where another word for Monday is Friday.
Simply read the riddle again and again and become curious about its language and your own assumptions about the language. Here’s a big clue: in what ways could Friday not be a day of the week?
You’ve probably guessed the answer now! Here it is: The cowboy’s horse’s name is Friday. He rode in on him, and he rode out on him, regardless of the days of the week.