Behold, The Turtle

Behold the turtle

My grandfather used to have a huge painting behind the desk in his office of a turtle. As a kid it was just a cool picture to me and it made sense to me because the business that he founded and operated for decades before selling it and retiring to Florida was a pet supply company named KenLin Pet Supply.

I never really asked why a turtle, but just assumed it was his favorite animal. It wasn’t until years later that my dad and I were talking about that painting of the turtle that I came to fully understand the meaning of the painting.

My father asked me if I ever noticed the caption at the bottom of the painting. Honestly, I had not even seen one. I guess for a kid the huge picture of a turtle was interesting enough that I didn’t need to notice the words below it.

Hearing my father recite the caption to me all these years later, a good decade after my grandfather has passed away was awe inspiring. The inscription was small, but powerful and an incisive insight into the shrewd business man my grandfather was.

The caption read: “Behold the turtle. He makes progress only when he sticks his neck out.”

The quote was originally attributed to one of the participants of the Manhattan project, though who came up with the statement is not entirely clear. On October 13, 1945 “Collier’s Weekly” published a piece about Major General Leslie R. Groves who directed the Manhattan Project and the quote was included in the piece.

40 years ago the saying would have completely went over my head, but today as an entrepreneur myself I realize the importance of the quote.

It reminds me strangely of another quote from days working for Walt Disney Entertainment from Finding Nemo when Marlin is freaking out about what will happen to his son Nemo. Dory tells Marlin “Well, you can’t never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him.”

Many of us get comfortable with the status quo and don’t want to rock the boat once we’ve achieve some modicum of success. Our business is doing well (it could be better, but it’s been far worse), our marriage is good, but we don’t want to broach that one topic that always ends in a fight, but desperately needs resolving.

We are comfortable just like the turtle in his shell. Safe from danger. Safe from pain. Safe from everything including a better life or greater success.

Loss Aversion

Loss aversion is the tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains. Daniel Kahneman and his associate Amos Tversky originally coined the term loss aversion in 1979 in a paper on subjective probability. When the research was published I have to think it was kind of a no-brainer that humans behave this way.

We are more worried about losing something than potentially gaining something great. This plays into the sunk cost fallacy and status quo bias and together all this qequates to the fact that us humans have a far greater emotional, lizard brain, fear of loosing something we already have than we do of missing out on a potential gain.

If the turtle doesn’t stick his neck out he can see where he is going. He is stuck right where he is for better or worse. Eventually he will shrivel up and die because he can’t get water, can eat food, can reproduce, can’t live his life.

And we are the same way a lot of the time. Maybe we are recluses in the same league as Howard Hughes, but we stop taking chances because the fear and cost of failure has gotten too great.

When you started out with nothing you had nothing to lose so it was easy, but now there is a mortgage, employees, profit margins, and none of them want you to fail. They all depend on you and don’t want you to take risks, but taking those risks are the only way forward.

Stick Your Neck Out

You have to stick your neck out if you want to be better than you were yesterday. The only path toward growth for the turtle is sticking his neck out and going after that bite of lettuce whatever it is turtles love to eat.

If you’re not growing your business who will? If you don’t inspire the company to take chances on bold new initiatives who will? Accounting? It’s your job as the leader to go first and inspire others to follow.

And I can assure you that when you stick your neck out two things will happen. One good and one bad.

The bad is that you’ll get burned. You’ll make mistakes. You’ll lose money. It will hurt, but if you do it wisely you’ll recover. Not every idea you stick your neck out to try will be a winner. That’s just the way it goes. Ty Cobb had the greatest lifetime batting average in the entire history of baseball. Was it 1.000? Maybe .800? Nope, it was .366. That means Ty Cobb struck out 6 or 7 times for every 10 at batts. He wasn’t even at 50%!

You won’t be either and that’s okay. You don’t need every idea to hit to be a winning leader. You just need to make a few key hits when it counts. All the other strikes are just noise and background.

Enough of the bad thing. The other thing that will happen is you will succeed. Sometimes, when you stick your neck out you will get a hit, and sometimes that hit will be a homerun! A homerun you never would have made if you hadn’t taken the chance and stuck your neck out.

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