Once upon a time, there lived six blind men in a small town. They had been friends for a very long time. One day, they heard that there was an elephant in the town.
Since none of them had any idea what an elephant was like. They decided to go and meet this impressive creature. “Even though we would not be able to see it, we will each be able to feel it and get an idea what it is like”.
Together they went where the elephant was. Each one finally had a chance to touch the elephant.
The first man touched the elephant’s leg “Ah,” he said “I finally know what an elephant is like. It is large and round, like a really big tree trunk.”
“Hmmm” said the second blind man, who was touching it’s trunk. “Yeah, I guess it’s a bit big. …and definitely round. But I think it is more like a snake than a tree. Especially the way it keeps wriggling.”
“What do you mean?” said the third man, who was touching the side of the elephant. “How can you say it isn’t big? It is huge!! Infact it is so huge I can’t even feel the roundness you guys are talking about. It feels more like a large wall to me.”
“What do you mean huge? It’s tiny and twisty, like a whip or something” said the fourth who was touching the tail.
“Big and flappy like a sheet!” shouted the one touching the ear.
“Round and sharp like a spear!!” screamed the one holding the tusk.
Round and round they went, over and over, angrier and angrier.
In the end, the fight got so bad that each one, feeling lied to and betrayed, angrily walked away from the others.
They never spoke to each other again.
This is a story I tend to quote a lot. It applies in so many different ways to so many different situations. (It is a very old story and there are many different versions, usually with different endings. This is my favorite).
Unlike many “teaching” stories, it does not actually give an any clear answer or solution to the problem it raises.
That’s the whole point of the story though. The author themselves does not have a clear answer. They only have a clear understanding of the question.
What is the question?
If we were one of the blind men, in that situation with the other blind men, what could we do differently to achieve a better result?
Because many times in life, we are in exactly this situation. This question, and this story, repeats itself over and over in each of our lives. This story gives a key to continuous improvement and growth in our world changing power.
While we may not be able to come up with a quick solution to the conundrum, we can quickly exclude some flawed answers. I.e. those answers that seem like an easy way out, but actually lead to more problems in the long run.
Some of these are:
- Everybody’s interpretation is equally valid.
- We just need to find someone who can see better than the rest of us.
- There is no solution, we can never know.
Let’s take a quick look at these.
“Everyone has their own interpretation of reality and they are all equally valid.”
This may sound like a good answer. After all, each blind man is simply stating his own experience.
However, if we try to test that answer with reality, it quickly falls apart.
It is true that each blind man had a valid experience. They experienced a true fact.
However the problem is in their interpretations of the fact they experienced. Even though those interpretations were so basic that they didn’t even realize they were doing any interpreting.
“I felt the elephant. It felt big and round like a tree.”
“An elephant is big and round like a tree.”
One of these statements is totally true and the other is totally false.
To test this answer with reality let’s imagine someone’s experience of reality which leads them to believe something like:
“Cars are perfectly safe. No matter how drunk, tired or incompetent the driver is, the cars safety features will protect you.”
Can you accept their interpretation of reality as an equally valid one?
Would you let them drive your kids to school?
It is obvious that some things are true and some things are false. The problem the blind men have, is figuring out what things are true or false, based on their limited experience.
That is the same problem we all have.
“If we are blind and can’t find a solution, we just need to find someone who can see, to tell us what is really going on.”
This is a very tempting answer but the flaw should be obvious. That is that, we are all blind.
We all have limited experience of life. We can’t simply assume that “This person or that group of people have THE answer.” Because, one of the things we can be sure about is that they are as blind as we are.
That doesn’t mean we are all equally ignorant.
Some people may have spent more time touching the elephant. Perhaps they have felt the tail, bum and legs.
Others may have spent time thinking more about the nature of the elephant and figuring things out based on the small part of it they have felt.
Others might be as uninformed as we are but, importantly, their experiences will be based on a different part of the elephant from ours. They will know things that we don’t and vice versa.
We can be sure though, that they do not know everything.
Our challenge is to find a way to let their knowledge and experience enrich our own.
“There is no solution to the question, we are all blind so we can never know the truth.”
This is close enough to truth that it is easy to fall into its trap.
We may never be able to know the truth of the whole of the picture, but we can definitely know enough to make a good decision today. And we can learn more and make a better decision tomorrow.
There are many traditions which have come up with very successful solutions to different problems.
In fact, the whole field of science (medicine, engineering, astronomy etc) is that of blind people slowly feeling the world around us and figuring out a bit more each time.
There was a time when the best minds in the world believed that meat left on its own would inevitably transform into maggots.
Or that all diseases were caused by imbalances between the blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile in a person’s body.
Those ideas solved some of the problems we had at the time, but couldn’t solve other problems. As we learned more and we solved more.
The exercise of the story is putting ourselves in the shoes of the blind men, and then coming up with different methods to reduce the impact of our own blindness and adjust for the blindness of others around us.
All while still making good decisions and gaining from the core of knowledge that our experiences (and those of others) contain.