Think Harder

A father dies leaving instructions that his 17 camels are to be split up between his 3 sons as follows:

  • 1/2 of the camels are to go to the eldest son
  • 1/3 of the camels are to go to the middle son
  • 1/9 of the camels are to go to the youngest son

Failing to think of a way of carrying out split, they sought help from their wise but poor uncle. Their uncle arrived on his tatty old camel. He said, “I’ll lend you my camel, then you’ll have 18, and you should be able to divide them up without difficulty.” So the eldest son chose his 9 camels, the middle son chose his 6, and the youngest chose his 2 camels. The uncle then got back on his camel (which no-one wanted) and went home.

This parable is simply brilliant. Like the sons, my first impression was to focus on the math and immediately deem the task impossible. Yet the solution which left everyone happy was within their reach the entire time; they needed to change the way the problem was framed.

I heard this parable from William Ury, an accomplished negotiator who presented at TED. Listen to his TED talk, “The walk from ‘no’ to ‘yes'”.

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  • Brooke February 8, 2011 at 12:21 pm

    It’s a lot easier to see (read) the solution rather than listen to the parable. I guess I am more of a visual learner.