26/6/2018

The six blind men and the elephant

Reality is one, though wise men speak of it variously.” - RigVeda

We see the world. We understand it and we interpret it. How we do it comes down to our mental models.

Mental models come about from genetics, from culture, from education and experience and a whole range of things.

What it means though is that our view and interpretation is potentially one way to see the world.

To better understand the world we need to have multiple perspectives and multiple mental models. This is key for disruption, innovation and systems change.

An old fable in India talks about the king who invited six blind men to touch a elephant and tell him what it is. Ofcourse they didn’t know it was an elephant.

The poem Six Blind Men and the Elephant by John Godfrey Saxe captures it well.

I.

IT was six men of Indostan To learning much inclined, Who went to see the Elephant (Though all of them were blind), That each by observation Might satisfy his mind.

II.

The First approached the Elephant, And happening to fall Against his broad and sturdy side, At once began to bawl: God bless me!—but the Elephant Is very like a wall!”

III.

The Second, feeling of the tusk, Cried: Ho!—what have we here So very round and smooth and sharp? To me t is mighty clear This wonder of an Elephant Is very like a spear!”

IV.

The Third approached the animal, And happening to take The squirming trunk within his hands, Thus boldly up and spake:

I see,” quoth he, the Elephant Is very like a snake!”

V.

The Fourth reached out his eager hand, And felt about the knee. What most this wondrous beast is like Is mighty plain,” quoth he; ’T is clear enough the Elephant Is very like a tree!”

VI.

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear, Said: E’en the blindest man Can tell what this resembles most; Deny the fact who can, This marvel of an Elephant Is very like a fan!”

VII.

The Sixth no sooner had begun About the beast to grope, Than, seizing on the swinging tail That fell within his scope, I see,” quoth he, the Elephant Is very like a rope!”

VIII.

And so these men of Indostan Disputed loud and long, Each in his own opinion Exceeding stiff and strong, Though each was partly in the right, And all were in the wrong!

MORAL.

So, oft in theologic wars The disputants, I ween, Rail on in utter ignorance Of what each other mean, And prate about an Elephant Not one of them has seen!


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