I Am Here for the Meeting: A Thought Experiment

Sean R McMahon PhD
6 min readDec 1, 2020

A challenge that people avoid, then resist, and finally embrace —igniting their ability to think.

Photo by Fred Moon on Unsplash

I am a two-time startup founder, a professor of entrepreneurship, and an advisor. I think a lot. My students and friends have urged me to start sharing my ideas here, so let’s begin.

The following is a fictional situation…a thought experiment.

The box in your hands has your name on it, so you open it. Inside, you find two items. First, you see a brightly-colored shirt, with large letters that read, “I Am Here for the Meeting.” The second item is a sheet of paper with directions in a language you understand that state:

  1. You must meet, in person, with a particular individual sometime in the next 12 months, but you only get one attempt. If you meet this person, you will each be granted one wish (Love. A cure for COVID-19. Wealth. Cheap renewable energy…You get the idea).
  2. The person you are trying to meet has just received a box like yours; with an identical shirt and directions in a language they understand. Neither of you know who received the other box.
  3. You and the other individual may not research this meeting and may not communicate with anyone about this meeting; no books, no Internet, no phone, etc. Use only your existing knowledge and your ability to think.
  4. This is NOT a trick question. You may assume the other person who received a box is a living, adult human of sufficient physical and mental ability, autonomy, and motivation to consider and attend the meeting (for example, they are of sound mind and not in jail) and that passports and travel costs are not an issue.

You have just been offered a life-changing opportunity. What do you do?

Some of you are about to click away because your attention span has been depleted by years of absent-minded scrolling— DON’T DO IT. This thought experiment is about Overcoming Your Reluctance to Think and Initiating Thought. Decide to be present. Think.

Overcoming Your Reluctance to Think

When I run this thought experiment live, I am always intrigued by the initial reaction: people seek to reduce the discomfort they feel about ambiguity rather than seeking to reduce the ambiguity itself (which will reduce the discomfort naturally). Some insist on tricks and punchlines that explain the thought experiment and relieve them of the responsibility of thinking it through. Others ask endless questions, even as I reiterate that all information has been provided. Finally, some just break the experiment by saying something like “I don’t like to meet new people”.

In short, many people insist that more information is needed to attempt any legitimate effort. This is not true. How often do we have perfect information with which to take action? Choosing a significant other to spend your life with (and having them also choose you) is among the most important things we do, but information for that endeavor is definitely less than certain. Likewise, does anyone believe that recognizing, launching, and managing a novel startup in a dynamic world is based on complete information? It is not.

The best sign that participants are making progress in this thought experiment is silence. It means people have begun to think, but what are they thinking?

Initiating Thought

Here is the sort of mindset you need for this thought experiment — You have been given a screwdriver when you want a hammer. This is annoying, but instead of lamenting the hammer you don’t have, you start looking at the screwdriver in your hand. Finally, you turn the screwdriver around because the butt of a screwdriver allows you to hammer even though it is not a hammer. The point is, consider the essence of things. You don’t invent Uber if you only think of a taxi as a yellow car with a light on top.

If you consider the essence of the I Am Here for the Meeting thought experiment, there is really only one salient component: the meeting. Meeting someone in person involves…a time…and a place. That’s it. And, suddenly, the abstraction begins to fall away.

What might you expect a typical person to consider to improve the probability, however unlikely, of successfully meeting you? Let’s go further. What if you were Elon Musk? Even though you are an eccentric genius billionaire, you have reasonable certainty that the person you are tasked with meeting will not be just like you. So, you would need to think in the most generalizable human terms possible. See what’s happening here? This is simultaneously an exercise in cognition (but not rocket science) and empathy (but not existential pondering). Estimate the least common denominator between you and the greatest possible number of people (one of whom is doing the same thing to meet you).

Resolution

It’s a meeting. When and where is the most likely time and place that both you and this other person might choose to meet?

If it only takes a minute to meet someone, and we examine a single year, then we might be overwhelmed to consider that there are 525,960 minutes to choose from. But, this is nonsense. We don’t need to consider most of these minutes…just the least common denominators in terms of shared functional, practical, and cultural knowledge. I know the day and time I was born. That’s significant for me, but it is neither known nor significant to the unknown other person. What about picking a holiday? Not if it is religious or cultural such that only a limited set of people on the planet might know what it is and when it takes place.

When I have run this live, certain participants inevitably recognize a likely meeting time, but they don’t arrive at their conclusion as though it is a math problem. Instead, I often see mischievous smiles appear. Rather than an answer that makes “perfect sense”, people simply realize that no other answer makes any better sense.

With a time selected, all you need to estimate is the place, which, because of time zones, may impact time, too. If using technology were not prohibited, you might have established that the Earth’s surface area is 5,489,256,960,000,000 square feet, and then divided that number by, say, 5, on the reasonable assumption that you ought to be able to notice someone with a bright shirt that says “I Am Here for the Meeting” standing in the same 5-foot square as you, even in a crowd. This results in roughly 1.1 quadrillion 5-foot squares on the planet to evaluate. But, this is nonsense, too, right? You can eliminate the overwhelming majority of 5-foot squares by thinking functionally, practically, and culturally. If you have a least common denominator for time, what is the least common denominator for place?

This is where thinking about the other individual is critical. Why? Because you need to consider not just technical aspects, but also human nature and common sense. For example, maybe the North Pole and the South Pole come to mind as meeting locations, but you happen to know that the geographic poles are not the same as the magnetic poles. Does the other person know this? Moreover, these places are a nuisance to get to and there is no clear reason to favor one over the other. Which is better? You may only choose one.

But, guess what? Nobody in my experience running this thought experiment has spent time deliberating about the locations above. Most people don’t know or think much about technical aspects of maps and direction and, without technology, they do not have confidence that the person they are supposed to meet would know such details. In other words, there seems to be little about these places that capture one’s attention functionally, practically, and culturally…and we tend to know and think about things we pay attention to.

Here’s the rub. For participants who push themselves to be creative, a curious thing happens…many independently come to the same conclusion — a specific place at a specific time. In fact, even alternative conclusions constitute a rather short list. Once reluctance is overcome and thinking is initiated, this thought experiment produces a reliable top answer and few runners-up.

That’s it. No more hints. It’s a thought experiment, people, so think. I’ll add just one takeaway. When people recognize that their own cognitive barriers prevent them from developing actionable thought, it often represents a paradigm shift. The shift is not merely inspiration, like quotes from famous people; where the hope is that the inspiration is strong enough to ignite and maintain individual thought and action. That’s a tall order. The paradigm shift prompted by this thought experiment works in the opposite direction. It is designed to emphasize individual thought and action first. Inspiration, then, becomes a fulfilling, internally-generated byproduct.

I am here for the meeting. Join me.

To enter your answer, click here.

Special thanks to: Christian Ward, Chief Data Officer, Yext; Heidi Tuhkanen, Senior Expert, Stockholm Environment Institute; Austin Krauss, Data Scientist, IBM; Regan Stevenson, Entrepreneurship Professor, Indiana University; Amanda Tapler, Public Health Lecturer, Elon University.

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