Dr. Seuss Takes a Bet that Puts Him in a Box
The ironic boon of being challenged by boundaries and constraints.
Posted Sep 16, 2019
In 1960, publisher Bennett Cerf bet Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel $50 that he could not write a best-selling children’s book using fewer than 100 unique words. Cerf likely figured it was a sucker bet because three years earlier, Dr. Seuss was asked by William Spaulding, a director at book publisher Houghton Mifflin, to write a compelling children’s book using only 225 distinct words. He was to choose the words from a standard first grade vocabulary list of 348 words. Geisel failed and ended up using 236 to write the best-selling book, The Cat in the Hat. Which, at the time of Cerf’s bet, had already sold one million copies.
Dr. Seuss accepted Cerf’s bet and upped the challenge by stating that he would write a best-selling children’s book using only 50 words. A few months later, he delivered the 62 page, Green Eggs and Ham using exactly 50 unique words.
Those 50 words are: a, am, and, anywhere, are, be, boat, box, car, could, dark, do, eat, eggs, fox, goat, good, green, ham, here, house, I, if, in, let, like, may, me, mouse, not, on, or, rain, Sam, say, see, so, thank, that, the, them, there, they, train, tree, try, will, with, would, you.
I was surprised to see that the word “taste” is not included!
The story of Sam-I-am, who tries to get someone to taste his dish of green eggs and ham, became an immediate bestseller. It is the fourth highest selling English language children’s book in history, and to date has sold more than 8 million copies.
Dr. Seuss was challenged by a boundary. Boundaries and constraints help stimulate creative-thinking. This is where the concept of “thinking outside the box” comes from. When you find yourself boxed in by constraints, you have to use your problem solving skills to come up with a new solution. Think of the movie Apollo 13 when the ground crew had to figure out - in a matter of hours to prevent the astronauts from suffocating - how to fit a square CO2 filter into a slot designed for a round filter using only items that were available in the spacecraft.
Bennett Cerf put Dr. Seuss in a box, then Seuss put himself in an even smaller box. “Would you eat them in a box? Would you eat them with a fox?” A box he had think his way out of in order to create a book that children would love.
When I think of being challenged by a boundary, I often think of some of the physically challenged athletes that I’ve seen over the years. I’ve seen men and women with one leg running marathons and competing in downhill skiing. Two activities that I cannot do and I have both my legs. I used to wonder why they were able to do so much more than me, until I realized that they were challenged by a boundary and I wasn’t. Being unable to walk was unacceptable to them, and conquering their disability became a powerful motivating factor. They had to get out of that box!
Creativity and innovation abhor too much freedom. I like to imagine creativity as a prisoner trying to bust out of jail. When your resources and opportunities are limited you must become innovative. Think of Clint Eastwood, in the true-story movie Escape From Alcatraz, breaking out of prison with a nail clipper. An even better illustration is the World War II movie The Great Escape. It is an amazing tale of ingenuity. Men with little to work with escape from a German prisoner of war camp. In addition to digging three tunnels without shovels, they made hand drawn traveling documents and identification papers that looked authentic enough to pass for ones made on a printing press. Now that was a box to get out of!
Without boundaries to challenge us, we wouldn't be as creative. The exception to this rule is political constraint - government regulation stifles creativity, and shuts innovation down. We shouldn't have to worry about being arrested (remember Galileo) just because we have a radical idea. On the other hand, government can stimulate innovation, but what it has to do is... as a French economist once said, "Laissez-faire" which is understood as "get out of the way!" More specifically, what the government can do to stimulate innovation is to:
1. Reduce Taxes,
2. Reduce Regulation,
3. Return to a Sound Currency (like gold),
4. Reform K-12 Education, and
5. Reform Product Liability Law.
In other words: UNTIE the HANDS of INNOVATORS!
Robert Evans Wilson, Jr. is an innovation/change speaker, author, and consultant. RobWilsonSpeaker.com.