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Could you explain a microwave to a caveman?

“The value of vision is insight.” Unknown

This week’s exercise in thinking begins with a simple question: if I asked you to explain a microwave to a caveman where would you begin?

On the surface this task seems easy enough in that a microwave is a familiar household appliance that heats things, but is it really that simple?

Take a moment to consider how you would approach this challenge and then read on.

Ok, now let’s give it a go.

“A microwave is a metal box with a door and …”

“Sorry, what’s a box?”

“A hollow object with four sides.”


“Ok, so a microwave is a hollow metal object that …”

“Um, what’s metal?”

As you can see, our initial efforts to explain this device likely would be quickly derailed by the recipient of our communication (the caveman) because he has no pre-existing frame of reference regarding the object that we are attempting to describe.

And, because we failed to consider this, we would likely find ourselves getting hopelessly sidetracked trying to explain why right angles are essential to the construction of a box, and never even get close to mentioning (let alone helping the caveman understand) that a microwave cooks by converting electrical energy into a form of invisible high powered radio waves which produce heat when agitated.

This is one of my favourite exercises in thinking because it demonstrates the way in which our mind tends to leap to conclusions when we are trying to solve a problem to the point that, we often either solve the problem incorrectly, or solve the wrong problem altogether.

I’m sure you checked online to make sure that you knew how a microwave functioned before you attempted the question, right?

Equally, this challenge highlights the value of pausing to consider the nature of the problem that we are actually trying to solve. Having done so it looks at the importance of stretching your mind to consider a variety of possible solutions (and weighing the pros and cons of each) and the importance of the use of precision of language when communicating.

In this instance, for example, did you simply start visualising the details of the microwave sitting on your own kitchen counter? Or did you pause to consider whether it was in any way similar to something that might have existed in prehistoric times and use that in your explanation?

Now that you have considered all of these things and weighed out the options in your head, how might you more successfully explain the function of a microwave?

Taken to its highest level, the core of this discussion ultimately becomes: how can a futurist with a vision swimming around in his head of how the world might better function, employ insight to harness that thought and carefully mould it into something tangible that advances the state of humanity and contributes to the greater good?

And having done this, how does he then communicate the attributes and benefits of this radical innovation in such a way that everyone can understand and appreciate it?

Needless to say the world is in the midst of a time of great change and now is the time to rethink how we do everything, even thinking.

Robin Trimingham is the chief operating officer of The Olderhood Group Ltd and a virtual presenter, journalist, podcaster and thought leader in the fields of life transition and change management. Connect with Robin at https://bit.ly/3nSMlvc or robin@olderhood.com

Would you be able to explain to a caveman how a microwave works?

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Published June 15, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated June 10, 2021 at 10:48 pm)

Could you explain a microwave to a caveman?

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