About a month ago, I moved from Canada to the United States to start a new job at Preci-Manufacturing in Winooski, Vermont. I’ve been hired as a Production Control Analyst, and my job consists of first learning how Preci does manufacturing, and then looking for ways to improve that system. Preci manufactures precision parts for the aerospace and defense industries, and that means I get to be around a bunch of really skilled tradespeople and professionals all day. I also get to handle some extremely cool components, most of which I can’t discuss here. The job is a fantastic mix of my systems engineering education (Thanks, Concordia and Dr. Schmitt!) and my long-running personal interest in aerospace. It’s fast-paced work from the moment the bell rings at 7:30am, and I’m exhausted by the time I get into bed at 9:30pm. So far, I really like my new job.
Not long after I started working for Preci, a story started popping into my head. I first heard this story in a TED talk some years ago, back when TED talks were cool and relevant, and it’s stuck with me since. I’ll share it here:
An old dairy farmer dies, leaving eleven cows to his three sons. He declares in his will that the oldest child shall receive half the cows, the middle son shall receive a third of the cows, and the youngest child shall receive a twelfth of the cows.
Well, eleven is a prime number, and a part of a cow isn’t really all that useful to a dairy farmer. The sons are stumped.
They decide that they should visit the wise old woman of the village — and it’s always the wise old woman of the village who solves the problems in these kinds of stories — who explains that she doesn’t know a whole lot about mathematics but that she does have a cow, and that she hops that can help.
So the sons now have twelve cows: a half of twelve is six, a third of twelve is four, and a twelfth of twelve is one. Six plus four plus one equals eleven.
The sons give the wise old woman back her cow.
I love this story, and I have often thought of it at jobs that I’ve worked in the past. It’s a useful story about strategy, and whenever I face a new challenge, I often ask myself where I should look to find my metaphorical “twelfth cow” — how do we relax the boundaries on the problem space to reach a solution that we couldn’t before, without violating any of the original constraints — but the more I think about this story, the more I realize that this is an incomplete reading. Perhaps there’s more to this story than trying to identify with the wise old woman? It’s more likely to me that we identify with different characters in the story at different times during the problem solving process.
Sometimes — indeed, most of the time — we’re the three brothers: perhaps we’re flummoxed by a seemingly intractable issue, and maybe by dint of pride a little reticent to approach the wise old woman for outside help?
Sometimes we’re the father: perhaps we’ve left a difficult problem for someone to solve in our absence? Maybe it was unintentional, visited upon friends, family, and coworkers by carelessness or ignorance? Perhaps it was intentional, in order to deliberately cause difficulty? I like to think that the father in this story left eleven cows to his three sons on purpose — but safe in the knowledge that the right challenge at the right time can bring people together.
Sometimes we’re the eleven cows: seemingly innocent participants in a larger problem we can’t quite fathom, and which at first glance doesn’t appear to directly affect us? Perhaps the three sons have different management philosophies to be discovered later by their herd?
And perhaps sometimes, we’re that twelfth cow: again, a seemingly innocent participant, but whose special quality changes the world by virtue of the fact that they merely exist in it. I’ll even invoke a transitive property for the specialness of cows, and argue that all cows are special and merely need the right contextualization for the universe to acknowledge their importance.
Good stories are those that can be read from multiple angles —and I think that anything else is either advertising or propaganda — and the story of a problem being solved with compassion and breadth of vision (rather than pure intellect) is just one of those stories.
I hope I’m able to spend a little less time looking for cows and a little more time being one —and I’d like to acknowledge you for the twelfth cow you’ve always been.
All photos from www.preci.com, except for the last one, which is from Earthworm Jim 2 (SNES).