3 Important Lessons That Monkeys Can Teach Us About Business And Life

Greg Satell
6 min readFeb 18, 2023
Photo by Jamie Haughton on Unsplash

Franz Kafka was especially skeptical about parables. “Many complain that the words of the wise are always merely parables and of no use in daily life,” he wrote. “When the sage says: ‘Go over,’ he does not mean that we should cross to some actual place… he means some fabulous yonder…that he cannot designate more precisely, and therefore cannot help us here in the very least.

Business pundits, on the other hand, tend to favor parables, probably because telling simple stories allows for the opportunity to seem both folksy and wise at the same time. When Warren Buffet says “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked,” it doesn’t sound so much like an admonishment.

Over the years I’ve noticed that some of the best business parables involve monkeys. I’m not sure why that is, but I think it has something to do with taking intelligence out of the equation. We’re often prone to imagining ourselves as the clever hero of our own story and we neglect simple truths. That may be why monkey parables have so much to teach us.

1. Build The #MonkeyFirst

When I work with executives, they often have a breakthrough idea they are excited about. They begin to tell me what a great opportunity it is and how they are perfectly positioned to capitalize on it. However, when I begin to dig a little deeper it appears that there is some major barrier to making it happen. When I try to ask about it, they just shut down.

One reason that this happens is that there is a fundamental tension between innovation and operations. Operational executives tend to focus on identifying clear benchmarks to track progress. That’s fine for a typical project, but when you are trying to do something truly new and different, you have to directly confront the unknown.

At Google X, the tech giant’s “moonshot factory,” the mantra is #MonkeyFirst. The idea is that if you want to get a monkey to recite Shakespeare on a pedestal, you start by training the monkey, not building the pedestal, because training the monkey is the hard part. Anyone can build a pedestal.

The problem is that most people start with the pedestal, because it’s what they know and by building it…

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Greg Satell

Co-Founder: ChangeOS | Bestselling Author, Keynote Speaker, Wharton Lecturer, HBR Contributor, - Learn more at www.GregSatell.com