When my son was little, his preschool was planning to collect money for a charity by selling homemade greeting cards.
They’d use pictures the kids had painted, take photos of them, glue the photos to the cards (hey, it was back in the days when you couldn’t have your photos printed on mugs, mouse pads and dog tags at every corner store!), and then sell the cards to the proud parents, grandparents and other assorted family members.
Of course, in order to do that, the kids had to paint pictures. And so my son was given a sheet of paper, water colours and a brush.
He spent the next quarter of an hour or so painting vigorously, until he proudly presented his work of art – colourful, and complete with a nice, well rubbed-through hole, slightly to the bottom left of the center.
The preschool teacher came over to him, ready to console the poor boy and give him a new sheet of paper, since he had so obviously ruined the first one with his enthusiastic brushing.
But my son proudly declared that this wasn’t a bug, it was a feature: “Look, I’ve painted a hole!”
Now, the hole made it onto the cards, and we still own a copy of it to this day.
What’s interesting about this story (apart from the obvious fact that every parent loves to talk about their kids) is that the hole wasn’t there on its own – it was defined by its surroundings.
I recently wrote about two other phenomena, black holes and heavy atoms. In both cases, the actual thing is invisible to us mere humans. The only way to make it visible is by showing what’s around it.
In the case of the black hole, we can watch the light surrounding the black hole and being drawn into it. And in the case of the atoms we can play with the electrons surrounding the atom’s core to discover more about the core itself and its form.
But in both these cases, the actual thing exists more or less independently of the stuff around it.
(At least the black hole does: It really doesn’t care if there’s light around it or not to do its black-holing thing.
For the atoms, things aren’t as clear-cut: Yes, the neutrons and protons in the atom’s core would exist even if there were no electrons around them. But you wouldn’t really call them the nucleus of an atom anymore…)
In the case of my son’s picture, though, the hole only existed by virtue of what was around it.
On the other hand, without the hole, the picture wouldn’t have been the same.
Or look at the beautiful image of that tree at the very top of the page: Without the tree, the hole wouldn’t be there. But without the hole, the tree wouldn’t be the same.
(I suppose, metaphysically speaking, you could argue that the possibility of the hole exists independently of the tree. But we’re talking about tangible things here. Well, as tangible as a hole is ever going to get… 😀 )
So there’s a pattern there, a structure – and two thought-provoking lessons:
Lesson 1: Just because something can’t be seen or touched doesn’t mean it’s not an important part of the whole.
If the hole in my son’s painting wouldn’t have been there, the painting wouldn’t have been the same.
As a matter of fact, even as proud mom I have to admit that the rest of the painting was nice enough for a 3-year old, but it wasn’t the Mona Lisa.
But the hole turned the painting into something really special – something everybody was talking about on the charity fair. The painting even made it into our local newspaper, just because of that hole.
That lesson holds true for a lot of other things in life, too:
E.g. cleaning personal in hospitals: hardly ever noticed, but boy, are they important, and not only in times of CoVID-19!
Or that one person in your department or work group which is the “glue”. He or she holds everything together: different expectations, different personalities, and all the different requirements and requests.
But you’ll hardly ever notice this unless that person suddenly leaves the group because he or she “isn’t contributing anything important here anyway”.
So watch out for the parts of any system which are invisible on their own, but without them the whole system just wouldn’t be the same.
Lesson 2: Some things only exist in their current form because something around them gives them said form.
Like the holes in the tree or in my son’s painting, some things only have the shape or form they have because stuff around them makes them have this shape or form.
Without their surroundings, they might be completely different, or not there at all.
In human interactions, watch how some people take on a role in a certain group – but outside that group, they might act like very different people.
Or how certain processes in a company take on a certain form. Not because that form is the only one they could take (there are always alternatives!), but because the other established processes and departments and expectations around them only leave this form for them to fill out.Why you can't paint a hole without painting the picture around it... Click To Tweet
So what’s the secret sauce behind all these phenomena?
They are all based on interdependencies between an invisible, but important core and the form-giving stuff surrounding that core.
And just like the invisible core turns the whole thing into what it is, the visible surroundings determine which form the core can take.
If you start watching out for this, you might detect it in unexpected situations…
Image: Steffen Schaudel