The Ant and the Grasshopper: Living a fable-ous life


Back in grade school, one of our French language teachers taught us La Fontaine’s fables, the first of which was “La cigale et la fourmi,” aka, “The Ant and the Grasshopper,” after Aesop.

I hated this story, mainly because of the imperious, moralizing way our teacher taught it… not entirely unlike another teacher I had years before.

Here is the story, in French with a translation into English by Don Webb.

La cigale ayant chanté
Tout l’été,
Se trouva fort dépourvue
Quand la bise fut venue :
Pas un seul petit morceau
De mouche ou de vermisseau.
Elle alla crier famine
Chez la fourmi sa voisine,
La priant de lui prêter
Quelque grain pour subsister
Jusqu’à la saison nouvelle.
« Je vous paierai, lui dit-elle,
Avant l’août, foi d’animal,
Intérêt et principal. »
La fourmi n’est pas prêteuse :
C’est là son moindre défaut.
« Que faisiez-vous au temps chaud ?
Dit-elle à cette emprunteuse.
— Nuit et jour à tout venant
Je chantais, ne vous déplaise.
— Vous chantiez ? J’en suis fort aise :
Eh bien ! Dansez maintenant. »
The cricket had sung her song
all summer long
but found her victuals too few
when the north wind blew.
Nowhere could she espy
a single morsel of worm or fly.
Her neighbor, the ant, might,
she thought, help her in her plight,
and she begged her for a little grain
till summer would come back again.
“By next August I’ll repay both
Interest and principal; animal’s oath.”Now, the ant may have a fault or two
But lending is not something she will do.
She asked what the cricket did in summer.

“By night and day, to any comer
I sang whenever I had the chance.”

“You sang, did you? That’s nice. Now dance.”

Note how La Fontaine did not end his telling of this classic Aesop’s fable with a clear moral message, as is often done.

Instead, he beautifully captured each character’s ethical ambiguity in a way that invited discussion.

My French teacher, on the other hand, delivered this story with the predictable, old-school  “this was happens when you play instead of working hard” dogma.

Why did this story bother me so much?

This story — and the way my teacher told it — upset me.

What bothered me most about it wasn’t the Ant’s  cruel and vindictive behavior… well, actually, that did bother me a bit… but it wasn’t the main thing.

Nor did I think about how to parse the proximal and wider causes of the Grasshopper’s suffering…. no, I didn’t wonder whether it the Ant’s lack of charitable kindness in the moment, or whether it was about the Grasshopper’s lack of taking personal responsibility earlier in the summer.  I didn’t consider  going back further and analyzing the broader social context of Grasshoppers as an oppressed group resulting from the control over the means of production and government (the Hill) by a privileged Ant class. I didn’t even lament how the industrious, studious Ants were the victims of a populist, anti-establishment sentiment that has been twisted and manipulated by the destructive, parasitic, self-serving, politically savvy Grasshoppers, nay, Locusts…  and I certainly didn’t take an essentialist view and regard these Ant-Grasshopper differences as genetically fixed, thereby negating any potential critique of the Grasshopper’s shameless improvidence or of the Ant’s excessive hoarding.   No, none of those things bothered me.

What bothered me most about this story is that the Ant seemed to be some kind of sucker.

I saw the Ant as a jealous, deluded, self-loathing sucker caught up in a racket of self-denial and diminishing returns… the kind of person who’d like everyone else to believe that life must be miserable.

This story, to me, was simply a piece of propaganda designed to transform all of us students into obedient Ants.

Work hard. Be charitable. Don’t play. Don’t question authority. Speak when spoken to.

The context where this story was taught — a school classroom that was all about compliance, conjugation and regurgitation of obscure French verb tenses by an inept, hysterical, crypto-Nationalist/Separatist authoritarian language arts teacher — set the tone of this story for me.

Je déteste, je détestai, je détesterai, je détesterais.

The Sucker’s Game

I was a day dreamer who liked to play and work hard… which is to say, I liked to work smart.

I fantasized…

  • ..the Grasshopper, being an avid explorer, later discovered a nearby warm microclimate to live in comfortably, while the Ant’s home was crushed by an avalanche
  • ..the Grasshopper, being a creative thinker and innovator, discovered a way to make a living while only working part-time, while the Ant sacrificed its soul for a merciless Queen who didn’t hesitate to fire the Ant the moment sales slowed down
  • ..the Grasshopper got into a promising new industry with huge revenue growth, while the Ant’s production system became automated and its profit margins collapsed

Yes, the Grasshopper… that right, the one you mocked, Ms. Ant..!  It turns out that the Grasshopper, by playing all summer, developed an incredible talent and worldly intelligence — you, with your tunnel-vision, can’t even imagine how talented, Ms. Ant! — and this strong-legged, winged Grasshopper just got hired for an amazing job with tremendous upward mobility. Meanwhile you, Ms. Ant, are continuing to languish in the same dead-end position, for the rest of your miserable, hole-in-ground, life. WHO IS IMPROVIDENT NOW, SUCKER??

In the intervening decades since my childhood, I’ve discovered any number of sucker’s games — areas of activity where the payoff didn’t match the effort, no matter which dimensions of value were being considered.  The art of navigating life seems to me, in large measure, the art of navigating these mires of wasted effort, hope and dreams. Having a positive, curious, flexible Grasshopper’s mindset allows one to see promising sparks of potential, those fleeting moments of opportunity that pessimists routinely miss. It is precisely for those opportunities where it’s worth switching into “ant mode.”

On Beyond the False Dichotomy of Work vs. Play

Leaving aside the subjective interpretation of a once-upon-a-time-struggling school student, now I wonder, what does this fable mean to other people?

Fortunately, I don’t have to go far to find out.

The hard-working ants of Wikipedia have compiled an excellent article on the Ant and the Grasshopper fable (Wikipedia is a case where the effort pays off on several levels). The article includes some very interesting variations on the fable and some of the moral debate surrounding it… recommended reading, for sure.

If you cast a wider net on the Net, you’ll quickly find all kinds of politically motivated variants floating around and cross-pollinating with each other, such as these:

The ant is born into the family of the top one percent richest ants.  He goes to an Ivy League school, gets the right job, and inherits millions.(…)The grasshopper is born into a middle class family.  He works one job, but that job goes to China and he gets laid off.  He gets another job, but loses that one too.  And then a third, and a fourth.  Pretty soon, there are less jobs available than there were ten years ago because the ants are sending them all overseas so that they can make more money (…)The ant has made some risky investments while gaming the system, but the ants own everything (…)

The grasshopper’s family, already broke, bails out the ant.  But the ant doesn’t create new jobs, or reinvest the money in the economy.  The ant gives himself a big fat bonus… (…)

(etc.)

(..)Come winter, the shivering grasshopper calls a press conference and demands to know why the ant should be allowed to be warm and well fed while he is cold and starving.CBS, NBC , PBS, CNN, and ABC show up to provide pictures of the shivering grasshopper next to a video of the ant in his comfortable home with a table filled with food.America is stunned by the sharp contrast. How can this be, that in a country of such wealth, this poor grasshopper is allowed to suffer so?Kermit the Frog appears on Oprah with the grasshopper and everybody cries when they sing, ‘It’s Not Easy Being Green…’  (…)The story ends as we see the grasshopper and his free-loading friends finishing up the last bits of the ant’s food while the government house he is in, which, as you recall, just happens to be the ant’s old house, crumbles around them because the grasshopper doesn’t maintain it. (…)
(etc.)

If neither of those work for you, you can try this “REAL moral” version byle Jim Keller, who more literally notes that an ant hill is an “..ongoing Amazon Warrior Queendom with a single egg-laying monarch.”

I haven’t even bothered looking for a Greek / Eurozone Debt Crisis version of the fable, but I’m sure it’s out there.  (Hmmm… if we go with Keller’s final message and treat Ants and Grasshoppers as fundamentally separate & incompatible species, then it’s an argument against a unified Northern-Southern European currency.)  It’s interesting how, behind many of these politicized takes on the fable, there is a narrative of the Sucker’s Game, i.e, that the System is somehow rigged or hijacked against the protagonist Ant/Grasshopper, depending on which insect the author wants you to identify with.

Indeed, as Wikipedia and these Internet meme variants make clear, most of the moral debate surrounding this fable is one of individual vs. social responsibility, and the importance of Industry vs. the Arts (and what a shame to conflate both debates).

Had there been the Internet when I was in grade school, perhaps I wouldn’t have taken the line of thinking that I did (and what a shame that would have been).

Well, instead of the conventional, false dichotomies of Work vs. Play, I propose some questions:

What are the essential traits of both the Ant and Grasshopper that we’d want to synthesize, in order to not play the sucker’s game, while living the best possible lives (in every sense — economically, emotionally, morally, spiritually, artistically)?

How can we best combine… 

  • ..task focus with serendipitous discovery
  • ..tactical mastery with strategic positioning?  
  • ..specialization with diversification?

These are not dichotomous traits… they can be blended.

The only thing that is truly dichotomous in life is a moment of choice:  “Do I stay in the office today and work on the long term Anthill project, or do I go out to the Grasshopper business networking event?”

In order to make the right choice in the moment, you need to have more than just data about risks and potential returns; you need to have an overarching sense of purpose and guiding values in order to weigh the question of “is this an opportunity or a distraction?”

What is your purpose? What are your values?  ..and what blend of Ant-and-Grasshopper-like choices do you make, as a result?

If you take the time to answer the above questions well, you may transform your life into something fabulous, that is to say, something worthy of a fable.

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About danspira

My blog is at: http://danspira.com. My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on November 13, 2012, in Business, Career, Learning, Life, Metaphors, Productivity, Risk Management, Talent and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. The Backstory

    For several weeks I’ve been working on an instructional design project where the business objectives relate to a creative & spontaneous pursuit that is greatly improved when the practitioner has a strong sense of process discipline and diligence.

    I knew that I could research the process and create great instructional materials for it, but I also knew that the primary business issue was not the lack of knowledge or skill, but mainly, the lack of will. In other words, it was an affective domain issue.

    Certainly, I could expand the amount of time and focus given to ‘WIIFM’ (What’s In It For Me) in the process training sequence, however, I wanted to also have an exercise that more broadly targeted the affective domain, i.e., emotions, beliefs, values… something involving play, lateral thinking, a story, a metaphor, that sort of thing.

    I kept asking people for ideas about what kind of game they thought would capture this learning objective of ‘valuing on discipline in the process.’ One person asked me, ‘You mean like more ‘Ant’ and less ‘Grasshopper?’

    The moment they said that I felt a visceral reaction – ugh, *that* story! No way would I use that story..!

    Well, after a few iterations of other concepts, I thought about the Ant and the Grasshopper again. Here was a story that tapped directly into the affective domain – it was a mythical, cross-cultural values-based analogy that is deeply associated with people’s childhood… lots of emotional energy there to tap into… both positive and negative.

    However, if I was going to run with it and create an exercise around it, first I would have to exorcise the demons I had about it.

    Hence, this blog post.

  2. Post-Script

    On Facebook, a friend of mine commented on this post – he was in that classroom with me where we learned La Cigale et la Fournie, and he remembered it. “that… lecture may have been the last time I paid attention in French class,” he wrote. Wow. So it wasn’t just me. However, as would be expected, his own memories of the event – and his demons – were different than mine, a function of the differences in the issues we’ve each had to struggle with, in the decades following that day. Each time we remember something we reconstruct it, and so our memories provide a record of not just what happened once upon a time, but also, every time since that time.

    It’s so interesting how powerful metaphor can be, especially in the context of a fear-based learning environment, where the learner’s deeper lesson will be unpredictable. As I employ this metaphor in what (I hope) will be a safe learning environment, with learners who may have pre-existing positive or negative associations with it – I wonder how well it will reinforces the S.A.G.E. message I’m looking to convey, that is to say, Situational Ant Grasshopper Effectiveness.

    (..no, don’t worry, I won’t be using that acronym… if you must know, I’m turning this fable into a game of poker.)

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