8.3.Mexico-1-detail-b Cenote Highlights Relevant to Sustainable Design:

Answers may lie in front of us to help each other.

In the northern Yucatan, at the pre-Columbian Mayan archeological site of Chichen Itza, I came across this sacred cenote “Well of Sacrifice.”[i] Apparently, the Maya sacrificed objects made of gold and other materials as well as humans by throwing them into the well as a means to worship their rain god.

In chapter 2, “Power of Observation,” section 4, “Invention: Spouse and Children,” I wrote about my role interviewing high school seniors for the Jefferson Scholarship at my alma matter, the University of Virginia. The interview students are at the very top of their class, and this cenote inspired a question that I have asked each of them over the past decade.

Here is the question: “Imagine that you and a friend are in a rain forest with all of the trees and the vines, studying deforestation on a field project. Your friend falls into a hole that is thirty feet deep. He/she is strong enough to climb up three feet each day but is so tired at the end of the day that they fall back down two feet. How long does it take your friend to get out of the hole?” The most common answer that comes pretty quickly is thirty days. Out of eight students, about six say thirty days, and only one typically says twenty-seven or twenty-eight days. The fewer days is mathematically correct because on the second or third to last day, the friend is up and out of the hole before falling back down. Each year, one in eight students asks, “Can I help my friend with the vines?” This is the response that I look for, because they listen to the question, which intentionally includes a reference to the “vines.” They go beyond the math to think about the context of the situation. Answering a question with a question is harder than people think, because we are often programmed to respond with answers.

Each year, out of the pool of about four boys and four girls, who are in many cases the valedictorians of their high school, the response to help a friend has come from the girls, with only an exception in one year. With a “research” set over about a decade, this is an interesting finding, in that the year over year results are so similar. The vast majority of these top-ranking high school students are programmed with a default focus on math to solve problems. Some students have asked great questions like, “How tall is my friend?” “What is the vertical reach of my friend?” or “Does the hole fill up with water to create any floatation?” With each of these questions, the students are probing for the answer that nets out in math versus helping their friend on the first day. This path of student response questions is constructive if it leads to an answer fewer than thirty days, because in so many aspects of life, business, or sustainable design, if you can reach the goal in less time or energy expense, you have created efficiencies.

After seeing the early response pattern from students, I started asking the same question to peers in their forties and other adults. I also asked other students of varying age that were my friends’ children or college students that worked as interns at our office. The results held. About 75 percent say thirty days, 12.5 percent say twenty-seven or twenty-eight days, and 12.5 percent ask if they can help their friend with the vine on the first day. Interestingly, beyond the students, the gender results were not as pronounced regarding the “help a friend” response. In particular, a male friend, who is the chief operating officer of a solar company, and another male friend, who is a former US Marine with multiple combat tours to the Middle East, both said, “One day or less. I’ll get them out with the vines or whatever I can find.” They skipped over the question of using the vines and went straight to the declarative response. I asked about why they thought so many other people tried to solve for the math. The energy professional and the soldier both said that they needed to rely on teammates. Ask a colleague or friend the question to see their response.

This idea of teamwork and synergy will become increasingly important in a global energy economy where no one individual, company, political party, or country can get us out of a hole alone.

8.4.Mexico-1-detail-c support image for post on the Mayan cenote – Mayan observatory


mayan observatory

8.5.Mexico-1-detail-d support image for post on the Mayan cenote – Mayan hut

Author and illustrator: Charlie Szoradi is an architect, inventor, and the CEO of Independence LED Lighting. He writes about many other topics related to Mayan culture and the history of cenote sacrifice wells through his extensive travels around the world.

If you have found this posting online, it is an excerpt from Mr. Szoradi’s book Learn from Looking that served as the inspiring seed content for this drawing share resource. For additional drawings and insights on cenote history, we hope that you enjoy exploring LearnfromLooking.com. You can search via general terms such as sustainability as well as narrower terms such as cenote and well of sacrifice.

[i] Sacred Cenotes: Mexico 2: Detail (b):

National Geographic magazine: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2013/08/sacred-cenotes/guillermoprieto-text.