When the Right Answer Is Never Right Community Perspectives

Once upon a time there was a king who was faced with deciding the fate of one of his peasants. The king called the peasant to his court, and said to the kneeling, shackled peasant, "Your life is in my hands. I can pardon you and grant you life if you answer a question correctly."

"Please, Your Majesty," said the peasant humbly, with hope warming his heart that he might have at least a remote chance of giving a correct answer.

"I am holding a bird in my hand," continued the king. "If you guess correctly whether this bird is alive or dead, you can have your life."

I was five years old when my grandmother was told me this parable, and the moment is strongly imprinted in my memory. When my grandmother got to this point in the story, she asked me to guess what the right answer was, and I recall hesitating. Then, assuming that a living bird would visibly wiggle, I ventured that the bird was dead. My grandmother responded that if that were the correct answer, then the king would release the bird. I switched answers, claiming that the bird was alive, to which my grandmother told me that should the peasant have ventured that response, then the king would squeeze his fist, choking the bird. In short, the morale of the story was that there was no correct answer. The peasant was doomed no matter what he said.

I believe that with this parable was one of the greatest nuggets of wisdom I received from my grandmother. I often return to it, and I have used it many times, citing it to friends and colleagues. I wish, though, that I had fewer opportunities to turn to this story. But every time I refer to this story, I return to it because I am dealing with people in various organizations who, wittingly or unwittingly, fit the profile of the king.