What is it with threes and fives? Why are so many of us fascinated with these specific groupings?
I think I figured it out. Threes are interesting. And fives? Well, fives seem to be meaningful.
Deaths come in threes. Right? Or at least that’s the way many of us count them. And three times is the charm. Or is it? Are we more likely to get it right after failing twice? Does that really make any sense?
What about three strikes and you’re out! Really? Why not two? Or four…
It would be fascinating if things really did happen in groups of three. But statistically, that isn’t any more likely than things happening in groups of two or twelve. Things happen and for better or worse our conscious mind bends to make sense of them. Juxtaposing them with other events seems to work so that’s what we do.
Two people pass in quick succession, so we wait — sometimes, impatiently — for word of the third tragedy and then recalibrate to zero. Is that really what happens? Isn’t it more likely that we stop counting until confronted with the next couplet?
The same holds true for the charm. You know, that “three times is the charm,” charm. The third mystical attempt and whatever successes come with it.
So, counting things in threes can be interesting.
The Difference Between Interesting and Meaningful
Using fives is equally perplexing. And yet fives really do seem to work. Toyota’s Lean Production is based on asking why five times. Asking how or why something failed or didn’t go as planned.
The concept is simple. Ask why enough times and you’re bound to drill down deep enough to identify the root cause of the problem rather than ending your search too soon compounding an already bad situation. Finding yourself left with the consequences of ending your search prematurely while hoping there isn’t more to the problem than is apparent.
Asking what if and what if not at least five times works just as well. Especially, when we are struggling with a difficult decision. As does asking “What happens next?” five times. Contemplating what happens next forces us to look beyond the obvious into the world of consequences — intended, or unintended. Foreseen, or unforeseen.
But, why five? Because that’s what it takes to brush away all the easy, incomplete answers that we all wish were adequate. That’s what it takes to get from superficial to meaningful.
If you ask me, threes and fives are coping tools. Means by which we can more easily process the world around us. And, in the case of fives, a way to avoid the impact prematurely hesitating in our search for excellence can bring with it.