The old masters used to observe the natural world and discern what lessons could be learned from it. We see this evident in our western tradition of poetry, where many of the great writers of their respective ages had a seeming affinity with the natural world and human nature that led to them creating scenes and images of profound beauty. We see it even more strongly in the martial arts traditions of the east, where individual fighting styles are often named after animals: tiger, monkey, crane, etcetera. I learned one such lesson from the natural world a few decades ago, albeit it was rather less grand and beautiful than the past ones I have cited!
I was lying in bed, almost on the verge of sleep. My wife snored (I mean, breathed very quietly and beautifully) next to me, obviously deeply asleep. Suddenly, the fabric of the universe didn’t seem quite right. There was some disturbance, a small noise that was almost imperceptible at first, but slowly it gnawed at my consciousness until I became fully alert – eyes wide open – listening for danger.
Scratch, scratch, scratch. Rustle. It was so soft that I doubted for a moment, was it my imagination? No! I turned on the bedside light, “Linda … I think …”
Pandemonium broke out. We leapt out of the bed in a frantic search. There! There!
Our son’s hamster, Nicky, had broken out from his cage.
It was 2:00am in the morning. We frantically scrambled to follow his tiny, scurrying body, then scrambled again for a box to gently return him to his metal bastion.
After a stressful search and capture, we securely locked him back in his “Gulag”. Our son Joe snored on, happy and oblivious.
We returned to bed, congratulating ourselves. But an hour later, 3:00am, Nicky escaped again – making a second dash for freedom.
The search began again. Finally, we got him back in his cage and gave him a grape. There was a pause of deep bliss, of calm, and in this moment I wondered: how did he do it?
The cage looked as secure as Alcatraz (albeit for hamsters). It had a metal frame, hard plastic locks, and a weighty cage lid that had to be twisted to be opened. We’d had Nicky for a year at this point, and he’d never escaped before; had one of us made a mistake? A careless oversight?
Examining the evidence, dreamily entertaining the notion of myself a kind of pet detective, I realised this was not the case.
Nicky had moved one of his toys to the centre of the cage. When standing on top of this cage, he was able to place both of his little paws on the lid. By applying his bodyweight from this vantage, he was able to turn this lid and open the cage. He had learned, presumably by watching us, that a twisting motion was needed to open the lid. The ingenuity left me pretty speechless. It’s then that the lesson struck me.
To be successful, we may utilise many strategies, such as strengthening our purpose, taking responsibility, committing to excellence, being of service to others, and seeking synergy from co-operation, and of course increasing creativity… but there is another factor that is vitally important, one that Nicky demonstrated in abundance: persistence. Nicky tested that elaborate cage to destruction – every crevice, every corner, every angle. His teeth gnawed here, gnawed there, and importantly he never gave up. We see this in the success stories of famous athletes, writers, musicians, and others—they keep going no matter how many setbacks or rejections they suffer. It was something I “already knew” in some sense, at least at a conscious level, but the image of that determined hamster, tiny and seemingly powerless, cracking out of the “Gulag” was much more potent than any of those celebrity stories. It was purer. The message finally reached me at an unconscious (and hence far deeper) level.
Nicky knew nothing of discouragement. Even after his two great escapes, he was still looking for the weak spot, the next opportunity. That’s how we should be in business. We cannot afford to stand still and accept our fate. We must test the boundaries, create solutions, and never lose heart. As Thomas Watson Snr, founder of IBM, said, “If you want to increase your success, increase your failure rate!”
We need, then, to strengthen our resolve to persist. One way that we can do this is by increasing our motivation levels. When we are motivated, we have the energy to keep going and the resilience to bounce back from setbacks. We’re also more highly aware of our purpose. When we have this focus on purpose, we’re prepared to put up with the setbacks, because we can reconnect with the reason for doing what we’re doing: the end-goal, perhaps even reward for our long labours. The key, however, which is again something Nicky demonstrated so brilliantly, is that we must not merely persist doing the exact same thing over and over again, but trying out different methods until we come up with the one that works, thereby creating a new and ingenious way forward. They say the definition of madness is “doing the same thing and expecting a different result”, after all.
The first step to increasing our motivation, which in turn will build our ability to persist, is to become aware of what motivates us: is it security (Defender), belonging (Friend), recognition (Star), control (Director), material gain (Builder), acquiring and passing on knowledge (Expert), creativity (Creator), making a difference to others (Searcher), or freedom and independence (if little Nicky could complete a Motivational Map, surely Spirit motivator would be his number one!), or even a combination of several of these? These are the nine primary drivers that influence human behaviour, and by recognising which ones are acting on us most strongly, we can harness more energy, more enthusiasm, and the endless optimism of Nicky the Hamster: guru of the Gulag!