Legs on a Snake

Many years ago, when I was a lot younger and had more hair, I remember being told an old Chinese proverb, and as I sit here today in my comfy thinking chair, reflecting on the current state of systems designed to support those going through tough times, I am reminded of that story….

The master of a martial arts school, realising that his life was growing short, decided it was time to decide which one of his two best students would become his successor and take over the school after he was gone. Both of his students had their own strengths and flaws so who to choose was exceedingly tricky. In the end, the master decided on a simple competition to decide the outcome. He led his students down to the beach and after offering each of them a sharpened stick, outlined the test.

 “The test is simple, you will each draw an animal in the sand and the first one to finish and have their animal identified by me, will win.”

 The two students immediately picked up their sticks and started to draw in the sand feverishly. The first student quickly drew an ‘S’ shape and stepped backed, feeling pleased with himself at how easy and obvious the test was. But after looking over and seeing his rival frantically still drawing, brow furrowed in concentration, he started to panic.

 ‘What if I am wrong?’ Thought the first student, ‘what if my snake is too simple and won’t be recognised for what it is?’

 Fear gripped him and he cursed himself for being a fool. Nothing this important could possibly be decided by something as simple as a squiggle in the sand. With this, he picked up his stick again and started to draw legs on his snake. After starting the third leg, the second student stepped back, stating he had finished. The master walked over and after studying the drawing, correctly guessed the animal and proclaimed the second student the winner and his immediate successor.

 After the competition, the master asked the dejected student to walk with him along the beach. After a short distance the master asked the student why he had lost. The student replied that he had been too slow in finishing his lizard. The master paused and explained that he had not lost because he had been too slow but because he had added parts that did not need to be there. The master went on to say that he recognised the drawing was a snake as soon as it had been scratched in the sand, but the fact the student had believed it to be too obvious and simple an answer is why he had failed.

Now, that is a mighty fine story and for those of you at the back who may have been skim reading (I will hold back my indignation!), the analogy “adding legs to a snake” simply means that you are doing unnecessary work that is actually ruining your result.

At this moment in time, this is where we find ourselves. Gaming for resources, measuring outcomes, ticking boxes, putting people in boxes, data sets, case studies, reports, anything and everything we can to ‘prove’ what works best. All of it, ‘legs on a snake’.

By now we have firmly established that those going through tough times are the best people to figure out what they feel works best for them. We are just here to walk alongside them and provide that space, that safe bubble where they can engage in conversation and recognise how they can best go about making it happen.  Unfortunately, the system is not geared up for this. You simply cannot walk alongside someone and that be it. There has to be a final destination, an outcome, something that can be measured. Like monopoly, if you don’t pass ‘GO’ you don’t collect the money and unfortunately, that seems to be the true measure of ‘success’.

As the news depressingly reminded me just last week, we have been in austerity for nearly a decade, and with the prospect of another recession as well as the financial fallout of the current pandemic, I fear that this snake will soon turn into a millipede.

Written by Richard Boylan, PTS Coach in Northamptonshire. Read more like this?