In the Upper Midwest, a sure sign of spring and fall is when geese fly overhead, often honking loudly. I recently discovered the reason.

Turns out that Prof. Margaret Kuhn’s research revealed that in order to fly long distances, geese rotate their leaders, and they only pick the ones that can handle turbulence. The other birds honk, not from discomfort, but to encourage their leader.

I have shared lessons from animals over the years. Sometimes, they seem so much more advanced than humans; other times, we learn how not to handle problems. Here are some examples.

If a lobster is left high and dry among rocks, it does not have enough instinct and energy to work its way back to the sea, even though it may be only a few feet away. It waits for the sea to come to it and will die in its tracks.

There are also “human lobsters” in the world who are stranded on the rocks and won’t take a risk. They choose to procrastinate instead of grabbing hold of the problems they face.

Lesson: Taking risks is part of life. Not taking risks can kill a career.

Thomas J. Watson Jr., who built IBM into a worldwide power, loved to retell a story attributed to Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. Each year, a man fed wild ducks at a nearby lake before they flew south for the winter. This encouraged some of the ducks to stick around and grow fat and lazy.

The moral is that you can make wild ducks tame, but you can never make tame ducks wild again. And Watson wanted to encourage “wild ducks” at IBM to confront conformity.

Lesson: Letting someone else take care of you prevents you from maximizing your potential.

If you place a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will immediately jump out. However, if you put a frog in room-temperature water, it will stay put. But if the water temperature gradually increases by 5 to 10 degrees, the frog continues to stay and becomes groggier and groggier until it can’t climb out of the pot. The frog will sit there and boil because its sense of survival is geared to sudden changes in its environment, not slow, gradual changes.

Lesson: Pay attention to changes in your environment or prepare to get burned.

In an experiment, four monkeys were put in a room with a bunch of bananas hanging overhead. Every time a monkey tried to climb up and grab a banana, it got drenched with cold water. Eventually, the monkeys caught on, and they quit climbing up after the fruit.

But then, the monkeys were replaced one by one. As the new monkeys tried to climb up after the bananas, the older monkeys would prevent them from climbing. In time, all the original monkeys were replaced. And amazingly, none of the newer group ever tried to climb up to the bananas, even though none of them had ever been splashed with the cold water.

Lesson: Don’t avoid new opportunities just because others have failed or you have been warned not to even try.

Zookeepers found a kangaroo wandering outside its enclosure in the wee hours of the morning. They coaxed her back into the enclosure and added a few extra feet of fencing on top. They thought they had solved the issue until they found her wandering outside again the next night. They increased the fence to 20 feet and figured that would be too tall to leap over.

But the next morning, the kangaroo was free again. Another 10 feet of fencing went up, and the zookeepers thought their problem was solved.

A koala had watched the process and was more amused each day. “How high do you think those humans are going to build this cage?” he asked the kangaroo.

“Who knows?” said the kangaroo. “I wonder if they’ll take some of it down once they realize they keep leaving the gate unlocked.”

Lesson: Make sure you’re solving the right problem.

Mackay’s Moral: Who said you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?


Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or e-mail