It is not that often that I take inspiration from Children’s literature but as I was recently reminded, ‘if you want new ideas, read old books.’ The story of Chicken Liken comes from a very old book and certainly pre-dates any attempts to record it in print. It may be of Norse or Anglo-Saxon origin but versions of the story are found all over Europe. When the story first appears in a book, it is printed in Danish, and Kylling Kluk was the name of the brainless little chicken.
The story of course, is one of unrivalled pessimism and catastrophe. Chicken-Liken is struck on the head by an acorn and immediately jumps to the conclusion that the sky is falling down. He races to warn his equally credulous friends who are all soon infected with Chicken-Likens mindless panic. Thankfully order is shortly restored as the cunning fox, who clearly does not believe that the sky is falling down, takes advantage of their stupidity to eat them all.
Like all good fairy tales there is a moral to this tale. Chicken-Liken jumps to a conclusion, assuming the blow to his head foretells the sky’s collapse. He takes council of his worst fears and quickly recruits others with his doomsday tale. Leaping to conclusions, untested and unidentified assumptions and a narrative that leaps beyond the facts to an absurd conclusion. These are simply the day-to-day contagions of how our minds work and you can see them in evidence in almost every news cycle. Our ability to explain, far exceeds our ability to understand and we love stories, particularly ones with predictions.
There is a warning to all of us in this, particularly in times of uncertainty when things which once seemed certain or predictable suddenly lose this quality. We need to remain calm to think clearly and we must guard against spinning stories out of fragments, that may, or more probably may not mean what we think they do. We must test our assumptions, hold our conclusions lightly and actively seek information that might contradict or point to alternate explanations.
All of which brings us to the Little Engine That Could. I’m not sure she is any smarter than Chicken Liken, though it’s likely. What does stand out is that she has a very different mind-set. Published in 1930, Watty Piper’s story is about a train load of toys and food for the children on the other side of the mountain that gets stuck. Despite their pleas for help none of the other passing engines will help. Then along comes a little blue engine, she explains she is just a train yard switching engine and has never been over the mountain before – but she agrees to try and help. She sets of with a determined little mantra – ‘I think I can, I think I can, I think I can’. With the encouragement of all the toys cheering her on she makes it to the top and saves the day.
Of course, this tale is partly about determination and mind set. A willingness to step outside of your comfort zone, where the result is far from certain and where it is possible you will fail and, as an additional social consequence, you could be embarrassed. Fear of failure and fear of embarrassment are two of the biggest barriers to anyone stepping into the arena of their ‘ugly zone’. An evocative phrase, coined by the sports psychologist Dr Stan Beecham, it captures the uncertainty, risk and excitement of working outside our comfort zones.
The Little Engine That Could, has the courage to take the risk – her desire to help and the challenge of getting to the top of the mountain are strongly positive incentives for her. She also has a great support network – the cheering and encouraging toys all want her to succeed and spur her on. This positive sense of social connection is probably the single most important facet in the support necessary for people to work effectively outside of their comfort zones – to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
At the start of another week and a new month and with the prospect of emerging from lockdown shortly, now is a good time to think about being a little less Chicken-Liken and a bit more, Little Engine That Could.
 Ivan Pavlov
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