The Parable of the Tiger Cage

Why failing to understand the fundamental nature of things can turn out badly

Photo by Carolina Munemasa on Unsplash

A man was at the zoo one day. He came across a cage containing a tiger. What a magnificent animal, he thought, I would very much like to have my photograph taken with it for my Instagram page. So he climbed the outside of the cage, ignoring the shouts of alarm from other zoo-goers. When he dropped into the cage the tiger bounded over and killed him. A little later the man arrived in heaven and asked St Peter “Why did the tiger kill me? All I wanted was a photograph?”. St Peter looked at him and shook his head sadly. “You, my friend, have failed to understand the fundamental nature of tigers. The poor creature was trapped in territory a fraction of its size in nature. You invaded that space. It’s natural response was to kill you. I’m afraid that you are too selfish and stupid to enter heaven.”. And with that a hole opened in the floor to a fiery pit….

It’s strange how often in life we put ourselves in situations which turn out badly because we fail to take into account the fundamental nature of the people we are dealing with. We convince ourselves that once people get to know us they will change their behaviour or beliefs. It’s why we lie on our dating profiles. It’s why we ignore the warning signs and work for bosses who turn out to be sociopaths (or worse). It’s why we start that relationship thinking that love is going to smooth things over and that the other person will come to love us for who we really are and change the things about themselves that we don’t love. We demand change in others without being willing to change ourselves.

I had a friend at school who was obsessed with windsurfing. He used to sleep with the window open so he would be woken if any kind of wind got up. It was a fair bet that whenever the conditions were right he would be out windsurfing no matter what arrangements he had in his life at that point. This meant you could expect him to let you down if it was windy. There comes a point in any relationship where you either accept the person for who they are and work around it (“I know you’re always 30 minutes late so I’m going to stop turning up early). Where you realise there is no upside in getting upset with them for being who they are.

I once worked for a manager who was highly avoidant of conflict situations and was desperate to not rock the boat so he could get promoted to the next rung of the corporate ladder. Yet I was always dismayed at his unwillingness to fight for his people. I shouldn’t have been — this was who he was. I wanted him to see things the same way as me. The reality is his fundamental nature was what it was. That doesn’t mean I was right and he was wrong. It just means our natures were different. I was like the man climbing the fence expecting the tiger’s compliance in my world beating Instagram selfie.

One thing I’ve always said is that our friends are the people who’ve forgiven us for who we are. And this is true of anyone you encounter. You have to either decide you’re ok with the other person’s differences in values or behaviours or you’re not. Don’t be upset that everyone isn’t the same as you. Once you know about it — it should no longer be a surprise.

So, the next time you climb into a tiger cage. Ask yourself who’s to blame — is it you or the tiger?

Ex-Google, ex-Netscape, ex-Skyscanner. Interested in solving complex problems without complexity and self sustaining self improving organisations.

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