There’s an elephant in the room. Quite literally. And she wants to go home.
How did she come to be standing in the back room of an elite woman’s residence, chained and sorrowful—the center of pleas and gawking, curses and promises?
That is for you to read, in a brilliant story, from Kate DiCamillo: The Magician’s Elephant.
Suffice it to say, the elephant was brought to Baltese by the “finest magic” the magician “had ever performed.” When it became clear (spoiler!) that the elephant really should be sent home, the magician’s quandary also became clear…
‘I believe, ‘ said Peter very quietly.
‘What do you believe?’ said the magician without moving.
‘I believe that things can still be set right. I believe that you can perform the necessary magic.’
The magician shook his head. ‘No.’ He said the word quietly, as if he were speaking it to himself. ‘No.’
There was a long silence.
Leo Matienne cleared his throat, once, and then again. He opened his mouth, and spoke two simple words. He said, ‘What if?’
The magician raised his head then and looked at the policeman. ‘What if?’ he said. ‘What if?’ is a question that belongs to magic.’
Yes, said Leo, ‘to magic and also to the world in which we live every day. So: what if? What if you merely tried?’
‘I tried already, ‘ said the magician. ‘I tried and failed to send her back.’ The tears continued to roll down his face. ‘You must understand. I did not want to send her back: she was the finest magic I have ever performed.’
Seventeen year old Sara is my favorite iconoclast. At age twelve, she organized a science experience for her peers. It began with questions, not answers. It began with materials, not final words. She set wires and serrated clips, light bulbs and batteries out on the table and essentially encouraged her peers to ask “What if?” It wasn’t long before a group of children had created a working circuit. But not before one girl found dragon’s teeth. (Snap, snap!) Which was the greatest magic?
In a recent conversation between Sara and I, the issue of natural selection was raised, through the back door. We’d been talking about the book Hardwiring Happiness, and how a person, through resting his mind on the good, can alter not only neural structures towards the positive, but also genetics. (You heard that right. We can alter ourselves, through our mindful experiences, right down to our genes.) The conversation had also covered slime mold’s leaderless “intelligence, “ the genetics of creating cancer through lifestyle choices over a series of generations (rather than through static genetic predisposition), and the intriguing discovery that Alzheimer sufferers develop genetic alterations that effectively “give them” Down syndrome.
As if that wasn’t enough.
The question then arose: what if natural selection is wrong? Or more rightly put, Sara set this out on the table: “Natural selection takes too long. It’s too random. What if something else is also at work? What if populations alter themselves, down to the genetic level, through their experiences and behaviors? That would make more sense.”
Yes. As Leo Matienne would say, again and again in The Magician’s Elephant, “What if?” It doesn’t matter if she’s wrong. The question is intriguing. It could lead to other questions. She could even be right, in some permutation. This is how discoveries are born.
Our conversation naturally moved to other things, including the book Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently. There are two main attributes required to be an iconoclast, besides the ability to think outside the room:
1. ability to counter fear of failure
2. ability to counter fear of ridicule
If you are an educator, now is the time to say, what if. What if, instead of compelling kids to counter fear of failure and counter fear of ridicule, we set up systems that largely took these out of the equation? What if we placed materials before students and acknowledged equal magic in dragon’s teeth and an electrical circuit?
If you are a business person, now is also the time to say what if. What if we put aside pet theories and worked towards the most engaging solutions, being willing to give up our “finest magic” sometimes, in order to pursue other magic that might be better for our business and our world? Iconoclast discusses alternate case studies of companies that rule through fear and intimidation (consequently squelching innovation and tending to gain it instead through acquisitions), versus businesses that promote innovation by reducing the perception that explorations are something to be feared (they do this by changing processes and culture).
In fact, we needn’t stop there. Poets, writers, parents, painters, you name it. What if we say, what if?
It is a question that belongs to “magic and also to the world in which we live every day. So: what if? What if you merely tried?”