Thursday, January 13, 2022

Kits, Cats, Sacks, Wives

I would suspect that most of us growing up remember the old riddle of someone going to St. Ives:

"As I was going to St. Ives,
I met a man with seven wives,
Each wife had seven sacks,
Each sack had seven cats,
Each cat had seven kits,
Kits, cats, sacks and wives,
How many were going to St. Ives?"

The answer, of course, is one (Spoiler alert!): the speaker.  Apparently wherever everyone else was headed it was not to St. Ives (although to be fair, the riddle is somewhat vague about this - perhaps they were just taking the long route).

As a child, I bet most of us were both puzzled and then amazed by the answer and likely we immediately ran out and tried it on our family and friends.  Our family, no doubt, humored us by guessing; our friends either had to guess or blurted out "That riddle?  It is so childish.  I knew it years ago" (children often being the nadir of tact).  And so perhaps we learned where St. Ives was (there are two in England:  one in Cornwall and one in Cambridgeshire), perhaps learned that people carried things to market, and maybe learned to do math in our head (I get 2801, as corrected from original answer by Eaton Rapids Joe:  1 man, 7 wives, 49 sacks, 343 cats, and 2401 kits). 

But I wonder if we really missed the point of the riddle.

The crux of the riddle, of course, is in the first and last lines:  I was going to St. Ives, how many were going to St. Ives.  Everything else - the bulk of the riddle - is superfluous information not related to actually solving the problem.  In fact, in confuses the issue: people get lost in adding up how many peoples/items/animals are there, without realizing the fact that (per the riddle) none of them are going to St. Ives, only the speaker of the riddle. 

All that calculation and higher math and geography, wasted because it simply has no value to the actual answer that is needed.

I (and perhaps you) will laugh at this simple riddle as perhaps a happy memory.  What struck me as I was out walking Poppy The Brave this morning is how little I actually learned from this.

I could make a strong argument that for many years, I learned precisely the wrong lesson:  when asked a question, I  often get wrapped up in the minutiae and the details, in things that while interesting have no bearing on the actual question to be resolved.  Ask me how my garden is doing (not well, by the way this year - nasty cold snap) and I will get into the minutiae of the soil and water and amount of sunlight - all relevant to the potential for the garden, but you asked a different question:  "How is your garden doing", not "What are the contributing factors that adding to the fact that your garden is not doing well?". 

All of a sudden, the fact that I struggle with or have not resolved issues for many years - sometimes 40 or more - is not from a lack of trying or getting resources of thinking deeply on the subject, it is that I have not being solving for the right thing. "A = B+C" is the equation, but I am out looking for F, H, and Z because - well you know - I need to account for those kits, cats, sacks and wives.

I do not really need them to answer your question - oh, it is interesting and sometimes explains why the thing has turned out to be the way that it is (so for example, my garden would do better in Winter if I moved it 10 feet over), but that is the answer to a separate question:  "Why is garden not doing well in Winter"?

In dealing with one of one our senior executives at work (the sort of person that one would say "They would be a great mentor" if they had the time to do it [except I know they do not]) they presented a very simple response to any question/request/puzzle:  "The Ask, The Task, and The Timeline".  I am pondering this a great deal (It is simple and I think as we all know here, I am a simple man) as a paradigm, but it points out exactly the problem I have noticed:  If I do not understand the Ask correctly, of course everything else (The Task And The Timeline) will be completely wrong.

Or said another way, if I am not careful I will find myself traveling with man, wives, sacks, cats, and kits to an unknown destination - when really I wanted to go to St. Ives.


  1. Anonymous3:03 AM

    Very good reminder. When I have to troubleshoot something that 'broke', I have learned to begin by making sure the is plugged in or out. Remarkable how easily those two piece transformer cords can wiggle loose over time.

    Another example, several months ago, I thought the sound on my lap top was broken. It would play, just not emit sound. So i fiddlged with buttons I could have pushed to make it do that went on for about half and hour. What I had forgotten - my wife asked me to plug in ear buds and I had forgotten to remove them. My excuse - I very rarely use them, preferring to hear it over larger speakers.

    So begin with simple commonsense explanations and go from there.

    1. Anonymous - I wonder if it has something to do with the fact that we have a tendency, living in a complex and complicated society, to look for the complex and complicated explanation first. I have had a different issue with computers - in my case, it was because I had muted it and forgotten.

  2. All 100% true TB.

    As I get older I notice it more. I ponder things, the rotten wood in my cranium starts to smoulder, and I wander off into the weeds. But sometimes I end up somewhere special too. Why was the traveller going to St. Ives? Why did the man have seven wives? What’s going on with the cats…? It reminds me of the scientist that slipped up one day as he pondered his contaminated Petri dish and was about to throw it out… and then took a second look at it and realized he had discovered penicillin. You learned where St Ives was. You thought about what you actually learned from the exercise.

    Getting the wrong answer is only a bad thing if you learn nothing from it.

    1. Glen, it is remarkable how often personal and professional studies reveal something entirely different from what was anticipated. The ubiquitous Post-it note, derived from an adhesive that was not thought "sticky" enough; the medication developed for heart related chest pain that turned out to have a very different use (Viagra).

      Sometimes the wrong answer is not even wrong; it is just a different one.

  3. Not to be a richard-head, but wouldn't the wrong answer be 1+1+7^n?

    "...each wife had..." the key being the word "each".

    1. Nope, you are absolutely correct ERJ. See previous comment about higher math. I shall correct.

  4. I think you can tell a lot about a person by how they respond to such riddles. I find that many of my peers are not able to sort out the irrelevant parts of any discussion these days and thus would do poorly at answering such a riddle. They latch onto one part that is irrelevant, say why the other man had seven wives and then tune out the rest.

    1. Ed, our modern society is even worse: we would avoid answering the riddle at all and comment on the social implications of the situation. We literally have lost our moorings from basic rational thought and are reaping the consequences.

  5. The riddle (which I haven't thought about in years!) reminds me of an aptitude test I took as a child. It was made up of puzzles like that. One question I remember is "How many of each animal did Moses take on the ark?".

    I had to laugh at your garden question example. I was always taught that when someone asks you, "How are you doing?", you can either give the polite answer (which is, "Fine, thanks. How are you?") or you can be truthful. I think most people want the polite answer when they ask it!

    1. It is funny to me at least Kelly - there is a much teaching in those early sorts of rhymes as there is amusement and cleverness. I found the latter or miss the former.

      Answers: When giving them, I try to scale to the person asking and their relationship (for example, "I am doing well" is always the answer I make to my one-over manager, lest he thing my manager is something not aware I might be struggling). When asking them, I try to assume people will give the "honest" response and prepare for it. Sometimes, the response is longer than others.

  6. raven5:31 PM

    Off topic, but perhaps pertinent to modern society,and fairy tales- when my kid was in grade school 25 years ago, the school put on the play "Three little pigs".
    We all know it well- except this version had New Equity Social Consciousness" woven in- instead of being eaten by the Big Bad Wolf, the two little slothful spendthrift pigs ran over to their brothers brick house and were safely ensconced when the BBW showed up. What a great little example of sugar coated socialist poison.
    Now back to your regular programing-

    1. Raven, see my comment to Ed above. We forget that originally fairy tales ended more or less in either happiness or death, or sometimes happiness and death. If you remember Stephen Covey, he did a study on literature relating to success and found that there was a pretty significant change in the early to mid 20th century from having the right qualities of success to learning techniques to be successful. One will make good people; the other will make good manipulators.

  7. Had a prof that would throw in TONS of meaningless information into his exam questions.


    "The real world isn't clear, and you have to figure out what matters."

    1. John, the alternative view of this was the professors who specifically said "This is on the Test" - and 50% of the class did not take them seriously.

      I will say that in the real world, part of the problem is working through the every shifting and changes goals and priorities to find what really is the important and critical.


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