There’s an old parable about a professor who visits a Zen master to inquire about his philosophical tradition. The master welcomes the professor and pours him a cup of tea. The professor watches in consternation as the master fills the cup until it overflows – but continues to pour. The professor interjects, urgently telling the master that he’s spilling the tea. The master replies that the cup of tea is like the professor’s mind: as long as it’s full of its own ideas, it can’t be filled with anything more.
As it turns out, this story has a lot to teach us about how the minds of businesspeople tend to work – and what the limitations of that way of thinking can be. Far from being an abstract, it turns out that people who are comfortable with not knowing what they’re doing can achieve far better results on practical life tests than people who think they should have all the answers, according to an experiment conducted by business writer Tom Wujec.
Who’s the Better Builder?
Wujec has demonstrated the principle by giving a simple challenge to a wide range of students in all levels and fields of study, from kindergarten to postgraduate: build the highest tower you can manage out of spaghetti, string, tape, and marshmallows. As you can imagine, engineering students do rather well, but they’re not the best performers: that honor goes to the innovative kindergarteners. The MBA’s, on the other hand, perform the worst of all.
Expect the Unexpected
The principle working against the MBA’s is planning. They’re trained to develop a strategy and implement it according to their best initial assessment of the situation. But unfortunately, real life is too hard to predict to put much currency in what you know now. Kindergartners instinctively understand this, and they constantly adapt their strategy to suit whatever they learn on the fly. Through a creative process of trial and error, they learn continuously – without wasting too much time at the outset trying to nail down the best possible strategy.
Business, like life, is a lot more about trial and error than many of us are willing to admit. MBA’s like to feel like they’re in control of their destiny, but kindergartners are willing to go with the flow and learn what they can as they do. To the business-minded, this may seem like a wishy-washy way of going about life’s projects, but in point of fact, it’s that very flexibility that gives strength to our endeavors. Your carefully laid plans may or may not work out the way you hope they will, but if you trust in your ability to learn, adapt, and grow to meet challenges as they come, you can succeed at whatever you undertake. Put simply: Ideate and ideate often.
‘A Cup of Tea’
‘Build a Tower, Build a Team’