Here's a simple game to try out with someone: On a piece of paper, write out the numbers 1 through 9 horizontally. Each turn, one person marks a number. How each person does so is irrelevant... triangle, square, circle, underline... whatever. The goal is to be the first person to mark any three numbers that add up to exactly 15.
Simple enough, and you'll get more out of this post if you try it first with someone before reading further. That's because the game is solvable, but can you figure it out?
Still reading? If so, don't blame me if reading the solution ruins it for you, which is after the following white space so you couldn't accidentally peek ahead...
Here's the beauty of the game: It's Tic-Tac-Toe.
Now your mind is probably already spinning at trying to make the Tic-Tac-Toe link. And no doubt, some already see it. Either way, it's an interesting little game to play if you don't consider the Tic-Tac-Toe link, if only to grasp where someone who doesn't realize that link is coming from. How it works is to think of a Tic-Tac-Toe board like this...
8 | 1 | 6
3 | 5 | 7
4 | 9 | 2
If it hasn't already clicked I'll spell it out: Every column, row, and diagonal adds up to 15. So while playing the 1-9 number game, envision the above diagram (after having memorized it) and select numbers as if you were playing Tic-Tac-Toe. The bonus is, that's exactly what you are doing, but your opponent doesn't realize it because it's in such a different format.
Now every gamer worth his salt knows when playing Tic-Tac-Toe that you should never lose; you should always manage a tie if you're playing someone just as knowledgable, or possibly win against someone who doesn't. (I'll not go into those mechanics because I'm assuming most here already know them. But if not and you're curious, the internet can provide many such sources.)
However, using Tic-Tac-Toe logic, you've now have a different (yet ultimately identical) game that plays exactly the same, but since it appears so different (and because only you will be applying Tic-Tac-Toe logic) you'll also never lose. Plus, you might win against someone who is Tic-Tac-Toe savvy, but they can lose because they won't see it as that.
Example: You select 5 (middle square) and your opponent selects 7 (middle right). Now anyone who knows anything about Tic-Tac-Toe can see they just handed you the game. (However, would you honestly have seen it while playing the number game if you hadn't known about this?) In any case, you select 8, and they'll select 2 to prevent you from getting 15 total. Now you select 6 and whammo, you've not only blocked them, but have two ways to win, by selecting 1 or 4. At best, they can only block one of them while possibly not even seeing the other. Then you select the other number and you've won, possibly to their complete surprise.
I share this, in part, so you can try the game on others (especially math people) as an interesting experiment. (Will they get frustrated that they can never beat you, but at best only tie? Will they eventually "see it"?) It's up to you if you want to later divulge the secret, though obviously if they don't get Tic-Tac-Toe, then they won't get this.
But I mainly share this because I find it fascinating to realize that what we think is so easy, often times is only because we've been taught, told, or determined the solution after some work. So while at times we're patting ourselves on the back, it's humbling to see that as soon as the format gets shaken up a bit, we find ourselves right back at square one and not quite so clever as we had thought.
How does this tie into the Christmas Spirit and more mentioned in my title? During this season (and hopefully beyond) maybe recalling this little exercise will encourage you to put yourself in someone else's shoes when something is very apparent to you, but the other person just doesn't "get it", whether it's a child struggling with homework, a new co-worker learning the business, a relative trying to operate a computer, etc: While you may see it as Tic-Tac-Toe, remember, to them it's the 1-9 game.
So just because they don't "see it" is no reason to get impatient, harsh, or unkind. And remember there are things you don't get that others do, and if you expect them to be understanding and patient with you, then it's only fair to demand the same of yourself in giving, relating, and dealing with others.
As my wife and I prepare for the arrival of our second child sometime in the next 1-2 weeks, I was recently reminded that fatherhood is just about the most humbling thing in the world. Yesterday, after I helped my four-year-old put on her shoes, she looked at me with incredible sincerity and said something she'd never said before: "Dad, you're my hero." It just about brought tears to my eyes, and I'm ashamed of the times I've taken my role in her life for granted.
Now expand that to the times I've been impatient and/or dismissive of my fellow man, and I realize I have plenty to work on in 2009.
That said, I wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. May we all learn to put others before ourselves.