There’s a story often attributed to the writer, Henry Miller, about a little boy in India, who sat watching a guru study an object he held in his hand.
As the little boy came closer to get a better look, the guru sensed his curiosity and said, “It’s called a cocoon.” “And, inside is a beautiful butterfly. Soon the cocoon will split and the butterfly will come out.”
“May I have it?” asks the little boy.
“Yes,” said the guru, “but you must first promise something. When the cocoon splits open and the butterfly emerges, and begins beating its wings, promise me that you won’t help it by breaking the cocoon apart. No matter how hard it struggles, let the butterfly do it all by itself.”
The little boy promised, took the cocoon, went home, and then sat and watched. Finally, he saw the cocoon begin to quiver and vibrate. After a time, the cocoon slowly began to split open. Inside was a beautiful damp butterfly, frantically beating its wings against the cocoon, struggling to get out. The butterfly struggled and struggled, but did not seem to be able to free itself. The little boy desperately wanted to help, but he remembered the promise he made to the guru.
Watching the poor little butterfly struggle and struggle finally proved too much for the boy. He disobeyed the guru’s instructions and pushed the two halves of the cocoon apart. The butterfly sprang out of the cocoon and took flight, but as soon as it got up into the air, it fell down to the ground and was killed. The little boy picked up the dead butterfly and, with tears streaming down his face, ran back to the guru to show him.
“You pushed open the cocoon, didn’t you?” asked the guru. “Yes,” the boy said.”
The guru began to explain. “When the butterfly comes out of the cocoon, its wings are not strong enough to carry it into the air. The only way it can strengthen its wings is by beating them against the cocoon. The butterfly beats its wings over and over so its muscles will grow strong. When you helped the butterfly the way you did, you prevented it from getting strong enough to fly. That’s why the butterfly fell to the ground and was killed.”
Successful entrepreneurs, for the most part, tend to be natural “helpers.” The desire to help others solve their problems is, often, what draws us into our chosen professions in the first place. It’s also what drives our success.
Regardless of what we do for a living—saving lives or waiting tables—our income will always be in direct proportion to the quality and quantity of the service we render to others. As my long-term friend and mentor, Zig Zigler, used to say, “You can have everything in life you want, as long as you help enough other people get what they want.” This is one of those Absolute Truths of life. Help people to solve their problems and they’ll gladly pay you for it.
But, CounterThink demands that we examine every truth—even the absolute ones— from the opposite side.
When we follow our natural instinct and rush to the aid of another who is struggling, we run the great risk of doing more harm than good.
It’s not an easy thing to stand by and watch someone we care about struggle— especially when we know that we can help. But handing a child the toy he wants instead of letting him crawl across the room to get it himself, or rushing in to fix a mistake or complete a project for an employee who is struggling, has the same effect as the little boy opening the cocoon for the newly emerged butterfly.
When we rush to help someone who is struggling, we end up weakening the very muscles that person needs to be developing— so that when the time comes, he or she will have the strength to fly on their own.
Standing by and watching someone struggle is, often, one of the hardest lessons for us entrepreneurs to learn, especially when profit, deadlines and outcomes are at stake. But if you want to build a self-sufficient and productive team— capable of thinking and performing on their own— it’s an essential habit to develop.
To be effective as leaders, we often have to go against our natural human tendencies, like learning to stand by and allow those in our charge to stumble, and stutter, and trip and fall and screw things up— so they can exercise their “muscles” and figure things out for themselves. What often results is a much better way of doing things.
This is a story every parent, every teacher and every manager of people should remember. It’s also a good story to tell over the dinner table or a morning staff meeting— and to discuss. So often, what seems harsh or cruel or counterintuitive is in reality, kindness and wisdom and the very best training for the challenges ahead.