The African impala can jump to a height of over 10 feet and cover a distance of greater than 30 feet. It's a remarkable feat to observe -- so effortless and graceful, a real defense mechanism necessary on the predator-filled savannas.
But put these magnificent creatures in an enclosure in a zoo surrounded by just a three-foot wall, and the animals will not jump if they cannot see where their feet will land. They will be killed rather than risk the unknown.
Many humans share these characteristics. They thrive in familiar territory, doing what they know is safe and comfortable, but they won't take any risks for fear of failure. They would rather watch opportunities pass them by than jump over the wall.
And then there is the barnacle which makes one single and lasting decision about where it's going to live. After it decides, the homely little creature spends the rest of its life with its forehead cemented to a rock or attached to a ship. It survives by capturing food with its feathery legs and fending off predators. Not a glamorous existence, to be sure.
Again, parallels can be drawn to human behavior. Some people will attach themselves to a job or company with no intention of doing much other than eating or being eaten. Even if I were stuck on a luxury yacht, I know I'd get bored in a hurry.
Have you ever wondered how a little stake in the ground attached to a chain can restrain a four-ton elephant? These powerful creatures must be trained to stay with their keepers. For the first few days they are in captivity, the elephants are tied to bamboo trees with heavy rope. After trying unsuccessfully to free themselves, the animals give up, and can be restrained thereafter by a rope anchored to a small stake.
Certainly the stake is no match for the elephant's power, but these largest of land mammals have learned to be helpless. Chances are you've worked with a few elephants, who won't leave their comfort zone even though they have plenty of strengths to protect them. Their spirits are broken and they step back at the least resistance.
Of course, we can also learn plenty of positive lessons from animal behavior.
In the 1930s, a leading zoologist concluded it should be impossible for a bumblebee 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 should logically be incapable of doing.
We work with people like that too. They buzz around, doing the seemingly impossible without giving it a second thought. No explanation for what they are able to accomplish: they just do what needs to be done, and along the way, they pollinate ideas and make them grow. Watch a duck navigate across a lake. It looks so smooth and steady, floating along, like a postcard from the north woods. Look under the surface, and observe how hard the webbed feet are working. Then look at the wake the duck leaves behind. A ten-pound duck, less than a foot wide, opens up an angle of at least 40 degrees, with ripples extending more than 50 feet. The duck has left its mark--more than 600 times its size!
This poem, "Plain Old Oyster," attributed to David Cohen, really captures what a determined spirit can achieve:
There once was an oyster, whose story I'll tell
Who found that some sand, had gotten into his shell
It was only a grain, but gave him great pain
For oysters have feelings, although they are plain.
Now, did he berate the harsh workings of fate
That had brought him to such a deplorable state?
"No," he said to himself, "Since I cannot remove it,"
I'll lie in my shell, and think how to improve it."
The years rolled around, as the years always do,
And he came to his ultimate destiny ... stew.
Now the small grain of sand that had bothered him so,
Was a beautiful pearl all richly aglow.
This tale has a morale, for isn't it grand,
What an oyster can do with a morsel of sand?
Think ... what could we do, if we'd only begin,
With some fo the things that get under our skin.
Mackay's Moral: Even the turtle knows you have to stick your neck out to get ahead.