The mystery of the top-shelf hatbox

The next hatbox I pulled off the top shelf of the closet nearly tipped me off the ladder. It was the weight that surprised me; it was far too heavy for just a hat. As I regained my balance, I wondered why this one weighed more than the others. I set it on the vanity and started untying the strings.

The Uncomfort Zone

I was curious if it would reveal any secrets about my mother, although I wasn’t expecting too much. All the other hatboxes contained… well, actual hats. Women’s hats from the 1950s and 60s with velvet, lace, feathers, and fur. It was a bittersweet nostalgia trip as my family inventoried the contents of my mother’s house. She had passed away six months earlier.

Hatbox-150x96I lifted the lid and found photographs. Hundreds of black and white photos… some of them dating back to the American Civil War. They were photos I had never seen before. Pictures of people… presumably relatives… but I didn’t know that for sure. It was a mystery, and one that I knew I would have to solve.

Looking at those photos one at a time was overwhelming, so one day I took them into my living room. I pushed all the furniture back to the walls, then spread the photos out on the floor. For the next several days I played the match game. Matching faces and places. Luckily, a few of them had inscriptions on the back that revealed names, dates and locations.

Once I had categorized the photos into groups, I met with my one living relative who was old enough to possibly know who some of these people were. The information she gave me added an entire branch to my family tree. I then started searching the internet where the floodgates opened.

Over the next few years, I found myself on a genealogical journey that did more than just place names to faces. It led me to recognize that my family’s dysfunction didn’t begin with my parents, but had a pattern that had been passed down generation after generation. And, that gave me the insight I needed to work on it (a topic for a future column).

A good mystery is compelling and we are motivated to find the answer. A mystery, however, is just a problem that needs to be solved. And, some of them really need to be solved.

I love the story of how Edward Jenner, a country doctor in England, created the smallpox vaccine. In 1762, when he was 13, Edward overheard a milkmaid say, “I shall never have smallpox for I have had cowpox. I shall never have an ugly pockmarked face.” It was a statement that would stay in the back of his mind for decades. He had heard all his life that milkmaids were in some mysterious way protected from smallpox. Perhaps this woman had the answer that would save the millions of people who died of smallpox every year. Thirty-three years later, he would find out.

In 1796, he drained fluid from the cowpox lesions on a milkmaid’s hands, then injected it into an eight year old boy. The boy only suffered a mild fever. Two months later, he injected the boy with smallpox. The boy did not get sick – he was protected. Jenner named his new procedure vaccination. 183 years later, smallpox was eradicated from the planet.

It doesn’t take a great mind to solve mysteries; average people do it all the time. There is probably a mystery you can solve that will improve your business. If you think about it, every product and service you purchase began as a solution to a problem. Whether it is through necessity or simple desire, people find new ways of doing things through creative thinking that was stimulated by a mystery. What mystery do you want to solve?

Robert Evans Wilson, Jr. is a motivational speaker and humorist. He works with companies that want to be more competitive and with people who want to think like innovators. For more information on Robert’s programs please click here