How The Calf Path Limits Performance

I am not much of a poet, but there is an amazing poem by a gentleman names Sam Walter Foss called “The Calf Path”. The poem is at the end of this post for you to read, and I truly recommend it. It is a truly challenging read and I hope it will give you a new approach to why you do the things you do, and inspire you to make different decisions.

The reason this poem hits me, and please forgive the sweeping generalisation and psychobabble for a moment, is that as an INTP I love change. I have been accused of change simply for its own sake. And it’s true. There is always a better way. Even if you find the best way to do something, there is still a better way to be discovered as new information comes to light.

Doing something the way it is done, simply because it is the way it is done, should never be enough for anyone. Why is it done this way? Does it even matter? Focus on the best solution, not the problem. Work on improving the performance, not getting results. If you focus on solutions, problems will be solved. If you focus on performance, results will come. Focus on the substance, not the style. There is always a better path to take, or a more efficient way to travel.

Sadly we are struggling in a world where critical thinking is no longer desired, but conformity is. Maybe that’s not wholly fair. Critical thinking to solve existing problems is mostly welcomed. Critical thinking to invest in the future? The big decisions that challenge the way we do things? Especially at a risk, or investment of time or money? What if it goes wrong and someone’s ego is bruised? Not so much. We take our eyes off the objectives and focus on the processes. We de-individualise everything and create systems. Even where creativity is allowed, it is limited.

So what does this have to do with performance? Everything!

Have you ever played with Lego and thought “I wish I had a bit that looked like…*insert description of that elusive and magical missing shape*…” I have (when I was a kid, honest), and I know I am not alone. The sad thing is that all across the world, whether it is in sports teams, small companies, corporations, or any other organisation or institution you can think of, someone somewhere is not quite fitting in, and they are not performing well because of it. They are a corner 3 piece, where a 4 block should be, from the outside it looks the same, but they know it’s not the right fit. They are filling a spot with defined parameters that they don’t quite fit into. They are trying to walk the calf path, but they better equipped to fly over it. They could change the world if they were put in the right spot.

If a coach came to a new football team and said “This season we will probably lose a lot, but I am developing the players to learn new skills and new positions so they will be better, and have a stronger set of skills in the future.” Would that coach have a waiting list for his team? I doubt it.

However, if that coach discovered that one of the players who was usually a kicker could throw the ball 80 yards with terrifying accuracy, the risk may just have paid off. The kid who was once on the calf path as a kicker now has a whole new role in the team.

I have a friend who works for a corporation who deliberately did this. He broke everything from the bottom up in his location and everything was horrendous for months. That location became one of the strongest because of the courage of his conviction. Risky, could have cost him his job. Paid off. he focused on what needed to change to improve performance, the results were secondary.

If you are stuck on the calf path what can you do? One approach is to think about the things that drive you, the things that inspire you, and the ways in which you can inspire others. Think about what it would be like to be in that world, then take steps backwards from that place to today and look at the path you took. Approach it from the perspective of being already there, and looking into the past to see how it happened. Then follow that path. It may be a challenge. Who knows, it may not be a path at all, and you may need to spread your wings and fly leaving the path behind. Do it anyway, you will thank yourself for it.

Anyway, that’s enough from me – here’s the poem, enjoy.

The Calf Path – by Sam Walter Foss

One day, through the primeval wood, A calf walked home, as good calves should; But made a trail all bent askew, A crooked trail, as all calves do. Since then three hundred years have fled, And, I infer, the calf is dead. But still he left behind his trail, And thereby hangs my moral tale.

The trail was taken up next day, By a lone dog that passed that way; And then a wise bellwether sheep, Pursued the trail o’er vale and steep, And drew the flock behind him, too, As good bellwethers always do.

And from that day, o’er hill and glade, Through those old woods a path was made, And many men wound in and out, And dodged and turned and bent about, And uttered words of righteous wrath, Because ’twas such a crooked path; But still they followed — do not laugh — The first migrations of that calf, And through this winding wood-way stalked, Because he wobbled when he walked.

This forest path became a lane, That bent, and turned, and turned again. This crooked lane became a road, Where many a poor horse with his load, Toiled on beneath the burning sun, And traveled some three miles in one. And thus a century and a half, They trod the footsteps of that calf.

The years passed on in swiftness fleet. The road became a village street, And this, before men were aware, A city’s crowded thoroughfare, And soon the central street was this, Of a renowned metropolis; And men two centuries and a half, Trod in the footsteps of that calf.

Each day a hundred thousand rout, Followed that zigzag calf about, And o’er his crooked journey went, The traffic of a continent. A hundred thousand men were led, By one calf near three centuries dead. They follow still his crooked way, And lose one hundred years a day, For thus such reverence is lent, To well-established precedent.

A moral lesson this might teach, Were I ordained and called to preach; For men are prone to go it blind, Along the calf-paths of the mind, And work away from sun to sun, To do what other men have done. They follow in the beaten track, And out and in, and forth and back, And still their devious course pursue, To keep the path that others do.

They keep the path a sacred groove, Along which all their lives they move; But how the wise old wood-gods laugh, Who saw the first primeval calf! Ah, many things this tale might teach — But I am not ordained to preach.

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Categories: Development, Performance

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