In The Stuff of Thought, Harvard psychologist and author extraordinaire, Steven Pinker relates the story of teaching a horse to sing.
According to an old story, a man
sentenced to be hanged fro offending the sultan, offered a deal to the court:
if they would give him a year, he would teach the sultan’s horse to sing,
earning his freedom; if he failed, he would go to the gallows willingly. When
he returned to the dock, a fellow prisoner said, “Are you crazy?” The man
replied, “I figure, over the course of a year a lot can happen. Maybe the
sultan will die, and the new sultan will pardon me. Maybe I’ll die; in that
case I wouldn’t have lost a thing. Maybe the horse will die; then I’ll be off
the hook. And who knows? Maybe I’ll teach the horse to sing!
This charming story portrays a skillful relationship to hope. It banks on impermanence and does not jump to conclusions of despair. It pierces through the illusion that we can predict the future and puts us in a good orientation to humility. It reflects plucky optimism, which is different than unskillful hope (we’ll explore that topic on another Monday).
For me, this story is a parable for the promise of science, creativity, and ingenuity.Things look bad right now but we may figure out how to solve many of the problems besetting the planet. We might also use that same science, creativity, and ingenuity to destroy ourselves.
Likewise at work, you may be facing what seems to be an insoluble problem. Can you reach a confidence within yourself that you and your team can generate a creative solution to this problem? If you pay careful enough attention to what is happening you will increase your likelihood of finding a solution. The condemned man’s optimism gives attention a broad vista to work with, open to all possibilities like the Beginner’s Mind.
Mindfulness helps us to discern what is wishful thinking from thinking that is grounded in the possible. Mindfulness helps us to avert a desperate narrative when circumstances are not going as planned in the present moment. The next moment, the next breath can offer redemption. Things may look different after a good night’s sleep or the passage of a year.
Meanwhile the process of teaching a horse to sing may have its own value. We might learn things about ourselves and enjoy ourselves along the way. It’s better to try than to give up in despair. So, enjoy teaching the horse to sing. Who knows, you might even be successful!