« Atul Gawande Visits Microsoft | Main | Feeling More Productive vs. Feeling Less Unproductive »

April 12, 2010

Teaching a Horse to Talk

My father once told me a story that goes as follows:

A man is sentenced to die by the king. As the verdict is announced, the man says, "Wait! If you spare my life, I promise that in one year, I will teach your horse to talk. If I fail, you can kill me then." The king is intrigued, and figures he has nothing to lose, so he agrees. Afterwards, the man's friend says, "Are you crazy? You'll never teach the king's horse to talk." The man laughs and says, "Think of it this way. I have an extra year to live, and a lot can happen in a year. I might die. The king might die. And who knows, maybe the horse will learn to talk."

This is actually one of my favorite stories (see, Pop-Pop, I was listening). I like the bias to action and the "What do I have to lose?" attitude, but also the wisdom that if the worst thing that can happen isn't worse than what's going to happen anyway, why not give it a shot? I recall telling this story during my PowerShell days, possibly in regards to the alleged virus fiasco in 2005 (of course, what actually happened there was I got yelled at by the security team, and Lee won an award from our VP for customer engagement; not sure what the moral of THAT story is).

I was reminded of this story because I'm watching an internal presentation where somebody told this same story, except a) It took them 7 1/2 minutes, not the 20-30 seconds it would take to tell my version above, b) they told it badly, and c) they completely botched the moral, trying to turn it into something about "People like to convince themselves that the horse will learn to speak", which has absolutely nothing to do with the original story.

P.S. Oh gak, the presentation just ended with a little 45-second coda about "How the story turned out", which manages to confuse the moral even more. GREATEST. PRESENTATION. EVER!!!

Posted by AdamBa at April 12, 2010 10:48 AM


I think the way I told it was "sing", not "talk", but that is a minor detail. Except that "Maybe the horse will learn to sing" has become a shorthand for the whole story. It means something, well, the odds are long, but I may as well try.

Posted by: Marble Chair at April 21, 2010 02:47 PM