Do a quick search for the Parable of the School of Animals and you’ll likely encounter a dozen different versions of the story about focusing on strengths. The one I rely on is attributed to George Reavis from 1940.
The Parable of the School of Animals
Once upon a time, the animals decided they must do something heroic to meet the problems of the “new world,” so they organized a school. They adopted an activity curriculum consisting of running, climbing, swimming, and flying; and to make it easier to administer, all the animals took all the same subjects.
The duck was excellent in swimming, better in fact than the instructor. It made passing grades in flying, but it was very poor in running. Since it was slow in running, it had to stay after school and drop swimming to practice running. This was kept up until its webbed feet were badly worn and it was only average in swimming. But average was acceptable in school, so nobody worried about that except the duck.
The rabbit started at the top of its class in running but had a nervous breakdown because of so much make-up work in swimming. The squirrel was excellent in climbing until it developed frustration in the flying class where the teacher made it start from the ground up instead of from the treetop down. It also developed severe muscle cramps from overexertion and then got an average score in climbing and below average in running.
The eagle was a problem child and was disciplined severely. In the climbing class, it beat all the others to the top of the tree but insisted on using its own way to get there.
At the end of the year, the abnormal little eel that could swim exceedingly well and also run, climb, and fly a little, had the highest average and was top of the class.
The Engineer’s Dilemma
This story is played out in real life on a daily basis. Several years ago, I was working on a project at one of the major auto manufacturers in the United States. I won’t tell you which one, but there are only 3 so you have a pretty good chance of guessing. We were told stories by automotive engineers who had come from the best schools in the country and around the world because they wanted to build cars. It was their skill and their passion. The problem was, there was an unwritten rule that if you wanted to progress in your career (in other words, get promoted), you had to have a breadth of experience. This led to engineers working rotations in places like marketing and human resources. In addition to taking these bright individuals from their expertise and in some cases causing them to look for different jobs, it also started to erode the ability of the organization to make quality vehicles.
Focus on Your Strengths
The lesson from the school of animals is simple in theory, yet hard in practice. Focus on your strengths. It’s hard because it runs counter to everything we’ve been taught our entire lives, which is to overcome our weaknesses. What the animals learned, as well as the engineers, was that by trying to develop skills that are not strong competencies to begin with, we tend to dilute our abilities. You are much better off in the long run to focus on increasing your strengths significantly. Think about it. The best golfers in the world don’t shoot free throws after a round of golf. They hit more golf balls. The same thing applies to getting better at your job.