Skip to content

3 Important Lessons That Monkeys Can Teach Us About Business And Life

2022 November 27
by Greg Satell

Franz Kafka was especially skeptical about parables. “Many complain that the words of the wise are always merely parables and of no use in daily life,” he wrote. “When the sage says: ‘Go over,’ he does not mean that we should cross to some actual place… he means some fabulous yonder…that he cannot designate more precisely, and therefore cannot help us here in the very least.

Business pundits, on the other hand, tend to favor parables, probably because telling simple stories allows for the opportunity to seem both folksy and wise at the same time. When Warren Buffet says “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked,” it doesn’t sound so much like an admonishment.

Over the years I’ve noticed that some of the best business parables involve monkeys. I’m not sure why that is, but I think it has something to do with taking intelligence out of the equation. We’re often prone to imagining ourselves as the clever hero of our own story and we neglect simple truths. That may be why monkey parables have so much to teach us.

1. Build The #MonkeyFirst

When I work with executives, they often have a breakthrough idea they are excited about. They begin to tell me what a great opportunity it is and how they are perfectly positioned to capitalize on it. However, when I begin to dig a little deeper it appears that there is some major barrier to making it happen. When I try to ask about it, they just shut down.

One reason that this happens is that there is a fundamental tension between innovation and operations. Operational executives tend to focus on identifying clear benchmarks to track progress. That’s fine for a typical project, but when you are trying to do something truly new and different, you have to directly confront the unknown.

At Google X, the tech giant’s “moonshot factory,” the mantra is #MonkeyFirst. The idea is that if you want to get a monkey to recite Shakespeare on a pedestal, you start by training the monkey, not building the pedestal, because training the monkey is the hard part. Anyone can build a pedestal.

The problem is that most people start with the pedestal, because it’s what they know and by building it, they can show early progress against a timeline. Unfortunately, building a pedestal gets you nowhere. Unless you can actually train the monkey, working on the pedestal is wasted effort.

The moral: Make sure you address the crux of the problem and don’t waste time with peripheral issues.

2. Don’t Get Taken In By Coin Flipping Monkeys

We live in a world that worships accomplishment. Sports stars who have never worked in an office are paid large fees to speak to corporate audiences. Billionaires who have never walked a beat speak out on how to fight crime (even as they invest in gun manufacturers). Others like to espouse views on education, although they have never taught a class.

Many say that you can’t argue with success, but consider this thought experiment: Put a million monkeys in a coin flipping contest. The winners in each round win a dollar and the losers drop out. After twenty rounds, there will only be two monkeys left, each winning $262,144. The vast majority of the other monkeys leave with merely pocket change.

How much would you pay the winning monkeys to speak at your corporate event? Would you invite them to advise your company? Sit on your board? Would you be interested in their views about how to raise your children, invest your savings or make career choices? Would you try to replicate their coin-flipping success? (Maybe it’s all in the wrist).

The truth is that chance and luck play a much bigger part in success than we like to admit. Einstein, for example, became the most famous scientist of the 20th century not just because of his discoveries but also due to an unlikely coincidence. True accomplishment is difficult to evaluate, so we look for signals of success to guide our judgments.

The moral: Next time you judge someone, either by their success or lack thereof, ask yourself whether you are judging actual accomplishment or telltale signs of successful coin flipping. It’s harder to tell the difference than you’d think.

3. The Infinite Monkey Theorem

There is an old thought experiment called the Infinite Monkey Theorem, which is eerily disturbing. The basic idea is that if there were an infinite amount of monkeys pecking away on an infinite amount of keyboards they would, in time, produce the complete works of Shakespeare, Tolstoy and every other literary masterpiece.

It’s a perplexing thought because we humans pride ourselves on our ability to recognize and evaluate patterns. The idea that something we value so highly could be randomly generated is extremely unsettling. Yet there is an entire branch of mathematics, called Ramsey Theory, devoted to the study of how order emerges from random sets of data.

While the infinite monkey theorem is, of course, theoretical, technology is forcing us to confront the very real dilemma’s it presents. For example, music scholar and composer David Cope has been able to create algorithms that produce original works of music that are so good even experts can’t tell they are computer generated. So what is the value of human input?

The moral: Much like the coin flipping contest, the infinite monkey theorem makes us confront what we value and why. What is the difference between things human produced and identical works that are computer generated? Are Tolstoy’s words what give his stories meaning? Or is it the intent of the author and the fact that a human was trying to say something important?

Imagining Monkeys All Around Us

G. H. Hardy, widely considered a genius, wrote that “For any serious purpose, intelligence is a very minor gift.” What he meant was that even in purely intellectual pursuits, such as his field of number theory, there are things that are far more important. It was, undoubtedly, intellectual humility that led Hardy to Ramanujuan, perhaps his greatest discovery of all.

Imagining ourselves to be heroes of our own story can rob us of the humility we need to succeed and prosper. Mistaking ourselves for geniuses can often get us into trouble. People who think they’re playing it smart tend to make silly mistakes, both because they expect to see things that others don’t and because they fail to look for and recognize trouble signs.

Parables about monkeys can be useful because nobody expects them to be geniuses, which demands that we ask ourselves hard questions. Are we doing the important work, or the easiest tasks to show progress on? If monkeys flipping coins can simulate professional success, what do we really celebrate? If monkeys tapping randomly on typewriters can create masterworks, what is the value of human agency?

The truth is that humans are prone to be foolish. We are unable, outside a few limited areas of expertise, to make basic distinctions in matters of importance. So we look for signals of prosperity, intelligence, shared purpose and other things we value to make judgments about what information we should trust. Imagining monkeys around us helps us to be more careful.

Sometimes the biggest obstacle between where we are now and the fabulous yonder we seek is just the few feet in front of us.

Greg Satell is a transformation & change expert, international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto

Need to overcome resistance to change? Sign up for the Adopting A Changemaker Mindset Course today!

Image: Pexels


No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS