What do you want to make possible?

Some of us see the world through a different lens. It is that unique perspective that unlocks possibilities for us. It is the lining up of things in just the right way: everything is a possibility with the right viewpoint. Possibilicism is having a toolbox of unique and interesting tools to present when someone’s unique and interesting machine breaks down.  It is a problem-solving, critical thinking state of mind, and it is one that I live in.

Let me ask you a question.

This is not a riddle. This is a real, solvable question presented to 5th graders in China. To be fair, it is not purely a math problem; it is presented as a critical thinking exercise to start children thinking “outside the box,” a term I disagree with, but seems appropriate for the situation. A friend of mine married a Chinese national, and the question was forwarded to me after the answer was explained. The question goes like this:

On a ship, there are 26 sheep and 10 goats. How old is the captain?

That’s it. That’s all you have to go on.

My friend was curious to see how I would work towards solving the problem. According to him, this question went around the popular Chinese social sites for a while before someone finally was able to pose an answer. So when the question was shared with me, I started putting some pieces together. I told him: 

I see two possible associations. The first and less likely: there are 26 letters in our alphabet and 10 numbers in our system. The crux of the question could be that only when letters and numbers come together, particular ages become relevant. Or, most importantly, the idea that the letters and numbers can only make sense once a person reaches a certain age. However, this is unlikely because everybody learns in different stages. Some children start speaking at 10 months, some don’t start speaking until 18 months. It’s highly individualized, so I don’t think we want to pursue that train of thought.

The second thing that I can imagine is that sheep take up a certain amount of space, right? I mean, you might get 2 sheep on a raft, but a raft is not going to carry a small flock of animals. To transport 36 livestock, I assume a ship has to be of a certain size or maybe rated for a certain weight, and I wonder if you have to be old enough to get a license for those kinds of boats. That would make the most sense to me, but I won’t know if that’s the answer until I research Chinese boat license requirements to figure out how licenses are granted, and I’m not sure how much of my time I want to spend Googling for Chinese boat specifications, although it would be an amusing story to tell my wife when I get home: “Hey, honey, guess what I learned today?”

My friend, sadly, was not so amused by my answer. The very-real answer is that in China, you can take tests to obtain a general boating license at the age of 23, which lets you captain small ships with up to 5,000kg of cargo. To captain a ship that is rated to carry over 5,000kg, you have to have maintained a general boating license for 5 years. The average weight of those animals, even accounting for some of them being newborns, will always come out upwards of 7,000kg. So a person must be 23 to start boating, and could not captain a ship to carry that many of those animals until they were equal to or greater than the age of 28.

Now, please hear me: I am not saying that I am smarter than the population of China. Just because I solved 90% of the problem in a few minutes does not mean that I outclassed 2/3 of our planet.

Instead, I am saying that I like putting pieces together that don’t seem to fit together, and when they’re done fusing, I usually have something that is functional but also oddly aesthetic. My work is effective and kind of artful. My finished products get the job done, but also enjoy the benefit of being fun to look at.

I’m an engineer without a STEM degree. I’m a problem-solver in need of problems. I’m a thinker for hire.

Have you ever shot a video but suffered from weird shadows on your face? I can find you a small, clippable ring light featuring 3 light levels under $20 that will improve the quality of your shoots. The light’s colors are off? You can use watercolor paint on saran wrap to fix that.

Have you been stuck with a large box of records to be digitized, and you can’t figure out the best way to organize them? I can help you figure out which devices you’ll need and cables to connect them so you can record your records.

Are you stuck making a big decision? I can help you fill in a decision-making matrix to mathematically weight every one of the pros and cons to each option, leaving you with a clear and functional report that says “yes, this one might make the most money, but this one clearly will boost morale more, and generates enough profit to allow you to pursue the other within 12-18 months.”

You need graphics? I’ll teach you the best quick tools.

You need voiceovers? I have a studio.

Your website lacks that oomph, that pizzazz, that je ne sais quoi? I can help you define that quoi so you know what to hire a web developer to do.


My name is Joe Barnosky, and I am the Possibilicist.