In an earlier post (On Serving Calendar Soup at the Leadership Luncheon, August 29, 2013), I offered up Calendar Soup–an image from a children’s book in which the pages from a calendar that show tasty ingredients are boiled into a nutrient-free stew that substitutes for the real thing–as a metaphor for some leaders’ preference for superficial “learning” over the hard work of deep change.
Thanks to finally digging into Daniel Kahneman’s recent book Thinking Fast and Slow, I now have an explanation (on page 35) for why we seem to enjoy Calendar Soup:
A general “law of least effort” applies to cognitive as well as physical exertion. The law asserts that if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action. In the economy of action, effort is a cost, and the acquisition of skill is driven by the balance of benefits and costs. Laziness is built deep into our nature.
Another serving, anyone?
When I was very young, there was a book in our home called Lazy Bear Lane by Thorne Smith*. I haven’t seen the book in over 50 years, but one passage has stuck with me ever since. The main characters, for reasons I’ve forgotten, were stuck with no resources and nothing to eat. But they did have a printed calendar, each page of which contained photographs of vegetables and other foodstuffs. They boiled up a pot of water and carefully tore out page after page from the calendar, wadded these up, and dropped them into the pot with anticipation and with close attention to the pictured flavors, textures, and aromas. The resulting soup, they found, was delicious.
While I suspect the intended lesson of this episode (this was a book from the depression era–before my time) was one of “mind over matter” or of the benefit of a positive mental attitude, a different lesson now occurs to me. Leadership, learning, and change are hard. How tempting it is to settle for appearances–for the veneer or superficial imitation of the real thing.
When accomplished and experienced people are exposed to new thinking, it’s not easy for us to adopt it fully. Doing so means that we didn’t know it all already. There’s a natural vulnerability in learning something new, and this vulnerability may be hard to accept–and even harder to admit to others.
So we settle for Calendar Soup. We take credit for a full belly and a satisfying meal–when nothing much has really happened, and we’re still hungrier than we think we are or can admit.
*Thorne Smith was also the author of the Topper series, made into very successful films, radio and TV programs in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. Our family copy of Lazy Bear Lane disappeared over the years–unfortunately. A copy today is worth several hundred dollars.