Lessons learned from animals – Part 2

About a month ago my column featured useful lessons learned from animals.  It certainly touched a nerve, as I received tremendous response from people who told me about what they had learned from their dogs, cats and pets of all descriptions.

Over the years I’ve used a lot of animal analogies because 1) life lessons come from many sources, and 2) you don’t have to name names.   Here is round two.

Personal growth:  The Japanese carp is commonly known as the koi.  If you keep it in a small fish bowl, it will only grow to be two or three inches long.  Place the koi in a larger tank or small pond and it will reach six to 10 inches.  Put it in a large pond and it may get as long as a foot and a half.  And when placed in a huge lake where it can really stretch out, it has the potential to reach sizes up to three feet.  The size of the fish is in direct relation to the size of the pond.

Relate that growth to people.  Our growth is determined by the size of our world – not the earth’s measurable dimensions, but the mental, emotional, spiritual and physical opportunities we expose ourselves to.

Lesson:  Unless we expand who we are, we’ll never have more than what we have now.

Teamwork vs. ego:  The danger of excessive pride or an excessive ego is evident in the story of the hitchhiking frog.

A frog asked two geese to take him south with them.  At first they resisted; they didn’t see how it could be done.  But the frog suggested that the two geese hold a stick in their beaks which he could hold on to with his mouth.

So off they flew.  People marveled at this demonstration of creative teamwork.  That is, until someone asked:  “Who was so clever to discover such a fine way to travel?”

Whereupon the frog opened his mouth and said, “It was I,” and plummeted to the earth.

Lesson:  If you want to take the credit, you also have to take the lumps.


Inability to let go:  An expedition of scientists was on a mission to capture a particular species of monkeys in the jungles of Africa.  It was important that the monkeys be brought back alive and unharmed.

Using their knowledge of monkey behavior, the scientists devised a trap consisting of a small jar with a long, narrow neck with a handful of nuts placed inside.  Several of these jars were staked out, while the scientists returned to their camp, confident of catching the monkeys.

Scenting the nuts in the bottle, a monkey would thrust his paw into the long neck of the jar and take a fistful of nuts.  But when he tried to withdraw the prize, he discovered that his clenched fist would not pass through the narrow neck of the bottle. So he was trapped in the anchored bottle, unable to escape with his treasure, and yet unwilling to let it go.  When the scientists returned, they easily took the monkeys captive.

Lesson:   Sometimes letting go means a much greater gain.

Competitiveness:  Have you noticed how many dead squirrels you see on the roadside in summer and how few you see during the winter?

In summer, nuts are plentiful, and it’s easy for even the slowest squirrel to survive.  The squirrels get fat and lazy and cars pick them off one by one.

In winter, things are just the opposite.  Nuts are few and far between and they must hustle to survive.  The fat and lazy squirrels have all gone to their maker.  The survivors are sleek, fast, and smart.  Few cars catch them unaware.

Lesson:  Businesses that become complacent and stop trying their hardest leave themselves vulnerable to business predators that soon put an end to their wellbeing.

Danger of Greed:  An old method of catching wild turkeys can be an excellent lesson to all of us.  To trap the turkeys, corn was scattered on the ground.  Then a net was stretched about two feet high over the grain.  When the wild turkeys sensed that no human was near, they would approach the corn and lower their heads to eat it.

When they became full and tried to leave, they lifted their heads and were immediately caught in the net.

Lesson: Don’t fall into the trap of something for nothing.


Mackay’s Moral:  Be kind to animals – they teach us great lessons. 

Don’t let false assumptions cloud your thinking

One afternoon, a woman noticed two small boys on the front step of a house.  They were in their school uniforms carrying their backpacks and she assumed were going home after school.  They were on their tip-toes trying to reach the doorbell with a stick.

“Poor little lads, they can’t get in,” she thought.  So she marched up the path, reached over the boys and gave the bell a long, firm push.

The surprised boys turned around and screamed, “Quick, run!” and promptly disappeared over the garden wall.

We’ve all had incidents where we misread the situation or falsely assumed that what we saw represented all the facts.  Then we realize we were wrong or at least judged prematurely.

While it’s not necessarily difficult to rethink your original assessment, when it comes to your business, it can be very costly.  You never want your customers to have to assume or guess that they know about all your products or services.  You must be specific, informative and user-friendly. To make sure your messaging is working in your favor, consider these following questions.

Do your customers have any idea what your business offers?  So often, business names don’t provide clues about the nature of a product or service.  If that’s your situation, you must find ways to present your business so that customers can find you.  An organization with a name like “Jones and Associates” could be a law firm, a real estate company, house painters, or a dozen other businesses.  You can’t assume that your name is synonymous with your service.  Make sure your Internet presence reflects the range of your services.

Do your customers know what your products and services can do for them?  Spell it out.  Even a product as basic as an envelope does more than move mail.  At MackayMitchell Envelope Company we offer more than 100 varieties of envelopes – for direct mail (four-color process), photos, invitations, tickets, return mail, embossing, self-seal, and so on.  If you have a specialized product that would benefit your customer, don’t assume that they know that such an item even exists.


Do your customers know how your products actually work?  Think “user-friendly” every minute.  Make sure your instruction manuals and training courses actually anticipate customer needs.  Don’t assume that every customer is tech-savvy or aware of options that would better serve their needs.

While you are rethinking ways to keep your customers from making false assumptions about your business, you can also reprogram your thinking so you can avoid making false assumptions.  Here are some ideas to consider:

  • Your first assumption may be false.  Make sure you have the facts before you make a judgment.
  • Give other people’s ideas a chance.  Another perspective can be extremely useful in making an accurate assessment.
  • Learn to separate facts from opinions.  Facts are provable, objective and clear.  Logic prevails rather than personal bias.
  • Think about how assumptions you make could change with circumstances.  For example, can you assume that costs will remain the same?  That would affect your bottom line, and potentially your success.
  • Are all the assumptions in your business plan reasonable?  Are you open to trying new things to improve your performance?
  • Don’t assume that today’s customer will be tomorrow’s customer.  Plan for changes and be willing to change plans.  As needs change and businesses come and go you must be prepared to alter your thinking and marketing to adapt to the times.

Resetting your mindset is never simple.  We all come equipped with viewpoints and perceptions that color our thinking.  But we can retrain our brains to see a bigger picture which in the long run will prevent jumping to the wrong conclusion.  Here’s a great illustration of the result of a false assumption.

Two service technicians working for the gas company conducted an ongoing rivalry to break up the monotony of their jobs.  One day, as they went around to the back of a house to read the meter, the woman who owned the house idly watched them from her kitchen window.

When they finished their business, the two technicians decided to race back to the truck – and so burst into a run.  As they reached their vehicle, they were surprised to see the woman of the house close on their heels.

“What’s wrong?” one asked.

She panted, “When two gas company men run from my house, I figure it’s time for me to run, too.”


Mackay’s Moral:  Don’t presume what you assume is correct.

Run the right race

In a village long ago lived a young boy who loved nothing as much as competing in athletic contests.  Because he was fit and strong, he usually triumphed, and he grew to love the adulation he received from the villagers around him.  One day he challenged two other youths to a race from one end of the town to the other.  The villagers all lined up to watch.  The boy won, and the townspeople cheered wildly.

“Another race!” the boy demanded, greedy for more praise.  “Who else will race against me?”

Two more young men stepped up, and again the race was run.  And once again the boy won, and he laughed in pride as the villagers cheered – though they were a little less enthusiastic than before.

“Who else?”  The boy looked around.  “Come on, are you all afraid?”

A woman was watching the races, and she grew annoyed at the boy’s arrogance.  So she prodded two elderly men to challenge him.  They could barely make their way to the starting line, but they seemed willing to compete.

“What’s this?”  The boy was puzzled.  How could he win the applause he craved by beating two old men who could hardly stagger two steps?

The woman walked up and whispered in his ear:  “Do you want applause for this race?”

“Of course!”

“Finish together,” the woman said.  “Just finish together.”

The boy did as he was told – and received the loudest applause of his life when the three of them reached the finish line, side by side.

racehorse-419742_640Lest you think I’m criticizing the competitive spirit, rest easy.  Let me assure you that this column has nothing to do with competition, but everything to do with being a winner.

Competition has an important role in business and in life.  It stimulates us to do well, to succeed, to reach higher.  But competition is not the only motivation that we should respond to.

You will always be a winner if you care about others and recognize when situations can be a win-win for everyone.

If you want to treat others with a classiness that will make you stand out, follow these tips from Alan Weiss in the Balancing Act newsletter (www.summitconsulting.com), which I have expanded on.

  • Listen to others without judgment.  Often people aren’t really looking for an opinion; they just want to be heard.  Look at it as a rare opportunity to give someone what he or she really wants in life.
  • If someone is boring you with a long rendition about a trip or some other dull subject, show patience and ask how he or she enjoyed the weather or the food.  They are trying to share something with you, even if they aren’t doing a very good job of it.  Treat the other person as you would like to be treated.
  • If you are angry about some type of service you are receiving (or not receiving) while with others, don’t ruin everyone’s experience by making a scene.  If you must say something, say it in private.  Remember that others in your group may not care about the same things or to the same degree that you do.
  • Try not to take things personally.  Not everything in the world is about your self-worth. Let me repeat:  It is not always all about you!
  • Paying an unexpected compliment is worlds better than giving an expected gift.  Give it a try and you’ll understand.  And it’s not difficult.
  • When you want the other person to believe that it’s really their choice and opinion that matter, don’t rush to give your opinion or make your choice first.  Enough said.
  • Watch your body language.  Actions speak louder than words.
  • If you make a commitment, follow through.  An unfulfilled commitment is far worse than no commitment at all.  Don’t opt for immediate perceived relief that will only turn to disappointment later.
  • If you need someone’s help, offer him or her something that serves their interest in return.  Don’t create an obligation or establish guilt when you do this.  This is what I like to call “reciprocity without keeping score.”

Competition will always have a legitimate role in business and in life.  But your most important competition comes from within.  Be the best person you can be.


Mackay’s Moral:  Caring is contagious – help spread it around!

Creativity lives in all of us

Albert Einstein once said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

There’s no shortage of smart people in the world.  But there is a shortage of creative people in the world.  Thinking is the hardest and most valuable task any person can perform.  Don’t stifle it, encourage it.  Remember, there’s no correlation between IQ and creativity.

Why aren’t more people creative?  Sometimes people are afraid of trying something new and getting ridiculed for it.  Sometimes people don’t believe that something could be better so they don’t bother trying to be more creative.

Whatever the reasons, the biggest risk can sometimes be not taking a risk.

In the book “The Creative Executive,” Granville Toogood says that we are by nature creative, but most of us fail to recognize our creative potential.  We race through our careers often never recognizing that creativity is as important to business as DNA is to evolution.  And when creativity pops up around us we are often quick to mock it.  Corporate cultures talk creativity, but the herd favors mediocrity, he says.


How can you improve your life?  If you keep doing what you’re doing, you’re only going to keep getting what you already have.  To get a better life, you need to do something different, and it all starts with being creative.

“Creativity is just connecting things.  When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.”  That particular piece of wisdom is from the late Apple founder Steve Jobs.

What may seem obvious for a software engineer at Apple seems utterly amazing to me.  Who would have ever imagined the power of the Internet?  Twenty years ago, who would have ever imagined that you could have the entire Internet in your hand?

Certainly, great artists, writers and composers come to mind when the discussion turns to creativity.  But did they all create something new?  Artists work with the same three primary colors plus black and white.  Writers all start with the same 26 letters.  Beethoven and the Beatles used the same musical notes.

In all those cases, they’ve taken the familiar in a different direction.  They didn’t reinvent the wheel.  They just changed the wheel’s course.

Anyone can do it.  Being creative is not the same as being original – that is, you don’t have to start from scratch to be creative.  Consider this advice:

  • Connect ideas.  Some ideas are better than others.  But instead of waiting for that stroke of genius to hit you, take a couple pretty good ideas and look for ways to connect them.
  • Repeat.  Analyze what you’ve already done, and try creating it all over again.  Chances are you’ll find a way to improve it, or perhaps give it a fresh angle.  You may also find a way to save time or use new resources by exploring what you already know.
  • Consider the impact.  Who else does the problem affect?  You may gain valuable insight and build support by including others in your analysis and solution.
  • Do some extra research.  Don’t assume you have all the facts you need.  Before trying to solve the problem, dig deep into the background and the issues surrounding it.  You may uncover something new that will lead to a fresh approach when nothing else has worked.
  • Limit yourself.  Sometimes having a wide variety of tools at your fingertips can overwhelm your brain.  Take a few ideas at a time, and discard those that get in the way.
  • Stick to a schedule.  Inspiration will find you more easily if it knows where to look.  Set a regular time and place for your creative work so your mind gets used to searching for ideas on a predictable basis.
  • Accept mistakes.  Don’t obsess over perfection.  Try things even if you’re not sure they’ll succeed.  Often you’ll stumble across a different strategy or a better path along the way.

How’s this for a creative approach?  A man bet a friend that he could make a million dollars selling rocks.  After his friend took him up on that offer, he packaged rocks in cardboard cartons that looked like pet carriers, filled them with straw, and called them Pet Rocks.  Do I need to tell you that he made more than a million dollars?


Mackay’s Moral:  “Creative genius” is a misnomer – you don’t have to be a genius to be 

Lessons learned from animals

We can learn a lot of lessons from animals.

Over the years I’ve used a lot of animal analogies, and it always amazes me how much easier it is to relate human behaviors in these examples.

Don’t yield to helplessness:  In cultures that depend on elephants for labor and transportation, it’s common to tie untrained elephants by their ankles to a bamboo tree, using heavy-duty rope.  After three or four days of trying to free themselves, elephants give up.

From that time on they can be restrained by tying one leg to a small peg in the ground – something they surely could escape from with minimal effort.  But with little resistance, the elephants don’t try to get loose.  Despite their superior size, they have learned helplessness.

Do you let your past experiences limit your choices?


Leave your mark:  Have you ever seen a duck move through water on a lake?  You don’t see its feet paddling under water, but let me tell you, the duck really moves.  It opens up an angle of at least 40 degrees and the water ripples as far as 40 or 50 feet, maybe even more.

That’s a lot.  The duck leaves a wake that’s 600 times its actual size.  That’s a lot of effect from a duck that’s only two feet long.

What kind of effect do your actions make?

Conquer your fear of failure:  The African impala can jump to a height of over 10 feet and cover a distance of greater than 30 feet.  Yet these magnificent creatures can be kept in an enclosure in any zoo with a 3 foot wall.  The animals will not jump if they cannot see where their feet will land.

As with so many humans, extreme caution gets in the way of success.

Don’t say no for the other person:  In the 1930s, a leading zoologist concluded after careful study that, according to the laws of aerodynamics, it should be impossible for a bumble bee to fly.  That is because its size, weight, and the shape of its body are all wrong in relation to its total wingspread.

Fortunately, no bumblebees have ever studied aerodynamics – so they just naively keep on doing what they’re incapable of doing.

Reach your full potential:  Flea trainers have observed a predictable and strange habit of fleas while training them.  Fleas are trained by putting them in a cardboard box with a top on it.  As you watch them jump and hit the lid, something very interesting becomes obvious.  The fleas continue to jump, but they are no longer jumping high enough to hit the top.

When you take off the lid, the fleas continue to jump, but they will not jump out of the box.  Once they have conditioned themselves to jump just so high, that’s all they can do.

Many people do the same thing.  They restrict themselves and never reach their potential.

Do your share:  A horseman spied the little sparrow lying on its back in the middle of the road.  Reining in his mount, he looked down and inquired of the little creature, “Why are you lying upside down like that?”

“I heard the sky is going to fall today,” replied the bird.

The horseman laughed, “And I suppose your spindly little legs can hold up the sky?”

“One does what one can,” said the little sparrow.

Are you doing all that you can to keep the sky from falling?

Growth involves risk:  An oceanographer was asked how a lobster is able to grow bigger when its shell is so hard.  The only way, he explained, is for the lobster to shed its shell at regular intervals.  When its body begins to feel cramped inside the shell, the lobster instinctively looks for a reasonably safe spot to rest while the hard shell comes off and the pink membrane just inside forms the basis of the new shell.

No matter where a lobster goes for this shedding process, it is vulnerable.  It can get tossed against a coral reef or eaten by a fish.  The lobster has to risk its life in order to grow.

Unlike the lobster, we have a choice when we resist taking risks because of the fear of failure.


Mackay’s Moral:  Animals rely on instincts, but we can control our actions.