Walking Through Walls: A novel perspective for attacking problems

“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.”

— Isaac Asimov


To acquire truth for its own sake is inconsequential. Truth is the means by which a person can successfully manipulate the world to attain an advantage. From the harvesting of fruits, to the creation of successful enterprises. But when we speak of truth with no actionable intent behind it—it’s all kind of frivolous.

The bridge from truth to action isn’t as easily traversable for some people than it is for others. This is the great cognitive struggle between our day to day understanding of the world and our ability to manipulate it successfully through action. If truth and action align harmoniously—one experiences inner growth and external triumph. On the other hand if these two functions fail to compliment one another, stagnation and suffering is the grand prize.

If we seek this fine harmony between truth and action, this aspiration must firstly begin with a desire to possess truth.

Ask yourself, would you really want to know if your partner was cheating on you, if knowing about it would destroy the relationship? I would argue that most people would prefer to know the facts about their relationship, rather than live in a world in which the conditions of one’s happiness turned out to be illusionary. There is a deep human urge to pursue reality for what it is, to eat the forbidden fruit of knowledge and break free from the shackles of ignorance.

In respect to the above question, some people might in actual fact, find little fault in living within this illusionary situation—ignorance is bliss as they say. Be that as it may, it is upon the foundations of illusion that we each build precarious wisdom. But let us return to our previous hypothetical and assume that you have formed an understanding of ‘trust’ based on the experiences of a romantic relationship (in this case, a romantic relationship that had been compromised by the unrevealed promiscuity of your partner) It would be a matter of fact that your present understanding of a truthful partner would be based upon the characteristics of a partner who is in fact, deliberately misleading you. In other words, person A believes a trustful partner behaves like X when in actual fact, their ‘trustful’ partner behaves like Y.

Such misconceptions about our world are accumulated in unprecedented numbers each and every day by us all, throughout countless domains—shaping the social narratives that we each partake in (largely to an unknown effect). But what is known is that deliberate action is reinforced by the merits of a strong understanding of the external world and the more we fail to grasp the actual facts of this external world (substituting with illusionary notions) the higher the likelihood our actions will fall short of their desired ends and the more likely our lives will be at the mercy of external forces.

Exploring your intuitive options

To illustrate the harmonious link between truth and action, simply imagine that you are hungry and standing beneath a large apple tree. Based on your understanding of the situation, it would be self evident how you could easily manipulate this situation to your own advantage. Even with the best looking apple slightly out of reach, a sound grasp of the situation means that you could easily devise a simple plan to poke the apple with a fallen branch. And just like that, the glorious apple would come falling out of the tree and into your hands. This simple example would represent a sound harmony between the cognitive function and the manipulative function. Your ability to grasp the causation of the situation allowed you to adequately predict the outcome, and act upon this understanding to manipulate the external world to your advantage.

At any moment you face a situation that you wish to manipulate like this—you are intuitively presented with a range of options that you can choose to act upon. Like how you had the option to use a branch to attain the apple, or failing that, how you could have climbed the tree if required. Most of the time, these intuitive options are sound enough for us to deal with the issue at hand, but for the sake of this point of mine, I am concerned about the situations you find yourself in where there are seemingly no longer any satisfactory options available. This is where you can find yourself exasperated due to the fact that you are incapable of reaching the end result that you desire. But know this—there is always a means to break through the limits of the assumed range of intuitive options. To grasp the significance of this abstract idea might be difficult at first, but if you are able to follow my forthcoming portrayal of this idea and summon this approach when the situation calls for it, I’ve known it to be a true game changer.

Lethal Theory

From moment to moment, we are each instinctively presented with a range of options that reveal to us the paths of action we can each pursue. Think of when you are walking through an unfamiliar building: subtle cues bombard the senses at each moment, revealing where you can and cannot go—signs, doors, stairways and corridors serve as the subtle aids to this intuitive process. But what if you could see that your range of options held you back in some way in relation to your desired goal? This idea was unexpectedly revealed to me in a book called A Burglar’s Guide to the City written by a chap named Geoff Manaugh. In this book, I was drawn to a particular eye-opening idea claiming that a criminal’s intuitive range of options often forced him to think in counterproductive ways pertinent to his goals. This idea was illustrated by a short story, featuring a hotel burglar who had a great epiphany. The burglar realises the obvious fact that he had always been thinking precisely how the hotel architects wanted him to think—rather than thinking about the hotel for what it actually was. Always believing he ought to break through a reinforced hotel door to reach his prize, the burglar now understood that he simply ought to carve a new route where he wanted through the hotel walls using a ten-dollar drywall knife. The author noted that criminals who failed to grasp this concept were “mere slaves to architecture, spatial captives in a world someone else has designed for them.” Leaving aside the practical lessons on criminality, this insight provides us with an eye-opening perspective on how our assumptions can often lead us to undertake inadequate actions pertinent to our goals. But it is with a mere tweak in one’s perspective, that new doors can suddenly arise, (figuratively and literally in this case) allowing for the realisation of novel acts. When our intuitive faculties accept walls as walls our options are simply the consequence of where the corridors lead us. The ability to break through the limits of the assumed range of options calls upon one’s creative faculty, a capability that some people are better at summoning than others. But to know during moments of frustration that the wall can be breached, can be enough to spark grand new insights in thinking and action.

Another case that greatly illustrates this point can be drawn from the 2002 Battle of Nablus conducted by the Israeli Defence Forces [IDF] in their successful campaign to suppress a Palestinian uprising. Within this battle, an unconventional military manoeuvre was utilised extensively by the IDF—which was described by Aviv Kochavi, a commander of the  IDF Paratroopers Brigade as a methodology of ‘walking-through-walls’.[1] Similar to the aforementioned revelation realised by the burglar, IDF commanders sought to reinterpret the battlespace rather than submit to the conventional understanding of the spatial boundaries of the city. IDF soldiers were commanded by their officers to avoid the streets and roads that made up the syntax of Nablus and instead, ordered to manoeuvre through the structures of the city, using explosives and sledgehammers to calve their own paths pertinent to their needs. In an interview discussing this strategy, Kochavi once compellingly described the thought process behind the tactics formation:

“This space that you look at, this room that you look at, is nothing but your interpretation of it. Now, you can stretch the boundaries of your interpretation, but not in an unlimited fashion, after all it must be bound by physics, as it contains buildings and alleys. The question is: How do you interpret the alley? Do you interpret it as a place, like every architect and every town planner, to walk through, or do you interpret it as a place that is forbidden to walk through? This depends only on interpretation. We interpreted the alley as a place forbidden to walk through, and the door as a place forbidden to pass through, and the window as a place forbidden to look through, because a weapon awaits us in the alley, and a booby trap awaits us behind the doors. This is because the enemy interprets space in a traditional, classical manner, and I do not want to obey this interpretation and fall into his traps. Not only do I not want to fall into his traps, I want to surprise him! This is the essence of war. I need to win. I need to emerge from an unexpected place. And this is what we tried to do.”

Nablus, day four of the operation. (Image courtesy of Israel Defense Forces.)

And this is precisely what they did. The battle of Nablus resulted in a decisive Israeli victory, thanks in part to this novel tactical manoeuvre. Such examples discussed so far have demonstrated the creative quality of refusing to submit to the natural authority of one’s intuitive options—whilst putting significant energy into the reinterpretation of the situation. This process seeks to unearth unexplored, novel approaches that allows one to attain their desired outcome. One key suggestion I can give you if you wish to try this concept in practise is to first commit yourself to a specific problem of great interest to you. The discovery of a novel approach to solving a problem will typically be the result of spending a lot of time exploring a whole lot of simple observations about a particular issue. It’s all about observing the interesting connections you can identify between seemingly contrasting and unrelated ideas. Deconstruct, then reconstruct. When you deconstruct something you are looking to break things down into the most basic assumptions that can no longer be deduced any further—what Aristotle defined as “the first basis from which a thing is known.” So in the case of the IDF command looking to overcome an adversary in a hostile urban environment, they broke the spacial assumptions of the city down into its smallest parts, and then reconstructed these premises into a formidable tactic that mended the urban fabric to their particular navigational needs.

It was the renowned Philosopher Sir Karl Popper that originally introduced me to this idea within his autobiography. He claimed that what was essential to this sort of creative thinking is the combination of intense interest in some problem (which implies a readiness to try and attack it again and again) along with proper critical thinking (which implies a readiness to challenge your own preconceptions and intuitive options). In addition to these prerequisites, Popper also claimed that our ability to break through the ordinary boundaries of our imagination is often sparked by a culture clash—which compels a person to acknowledge how their traditional ideas clash with the ideas of others. As someone who has lived in numerous countries throughout my adulthood, I strongly support this theory. Before I ever had to come to terms with cultural friction, the customs and beliefs of my home environment provided me with the only criterion for truth that I ever knew. Any perspectives that I was unaccustomed to were effortlessly dismissed as inferior to the only reference point that I happened to possess. It was only when I was compelled to spend time evaluating these different perspectives, in addition to the requirement of backing up my own, that I found myself more and more capable of stepping beyond the traditional boundaries of thinking that I had forever been accustomed to. You may or may not be able to elicit a cultural clash to experience such an experience for yourself—but it is my hope with this article at least, that you have gained a glimpse of the grander vantages that are on offer to us to address life’s challenges if we can discover them.