RESEARCHERS seem to have an innate sadistic streak towards the animal kingdom. What sort of person thought up the idea of slowly boiling a frog on a lily pad? Or squirting monkeys when they tried to grab bananas. You may not be familiar with these experiments, but a similar project came to my attention during the past week. This one involves carp. I don’t suggest you try this experiment at home…
Put a carp in a large aquarium and don't feed it for a couple of days. Then drop in a minnow or two and watch the carp eat the minnows – almost instantly. Next place a clear sheet of glass in the aquarium and once again put a bunch of minnows on the other side of the clear glass. Under water the glass becomes invisible to the carp. Over a period of time, the carp will repeatedly dive for the minnows, each time it dives not only hurting itself, but becoming increasingly frustrated by his inability to eat the minnows. (Apparently researchers show that the carp will dive continuously in the first hour, then with reducing frequency, until it just simply gives up on the pursuit.) The carp has learned that the desire to eat these fish not only cannot be satisfied, but great pain will result from any attempt to eat them. When the glass is taken out and the minnows are able to swim freely around and under the carp, they now do so with immunity. The carp has learned that trying to eat minnows is a dumb idea which bears a high cost of pursuit for no reward. It doesn't realize the circumstances have changed and the minnows can now be freely eaten.
The question this scenario poses is: when we think that something won’t work, on what basis are we making that assessment? I have lost count of the number of times I have heard a good idea being knocked back on the basis that “We tried that before and it didn’t work.” The old adage once bitten, twice shy expresses the human reluctance to give something another go when it failed before.
It seems that the timing of an idea is as important as the idea itself. The failure of an idea to achieve its intended purpose may not mean that the idea is faulty of itself. Rather it may require persistence or discernment in its implementation, so that the idea takes advantage of its opportune moment.
Sometimes the best action is born of an idea we have tried and failed. We need to be vigilant not only for good ideas, but for changed circumstances which make an old - even failed - idea fresh and powerful.
February 18, 2001
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