The Chameleon and the Scorpion

About Children’s Fiction

When my son was younger, I loved reading A Color of His Own by Leo Lionni to him. The synopsis starts with

Elephants are gray. Pigs are pink. Only the chameleon has no color of his own. He is purple like the heather, yellow like a lemon, even black and orange striped like a tiger!

It’s an interesting counter to the story of the Scorpion and the Frog, where the scorpion, unable to fight its nature, ends up stinging the frog on whom it depends and dies.

Fictions We Tell Ourselves About Changing

I’ve managed people, on and off, for a long time now, which means I’ve been making a mess of it and asking for help for a long time now. One common refrain I’ve heard from people whose advice I sought has been “People don’t really change.”

There’s another refrain I’ve heard, often from people younger and more confident than me — “I can adapt to any environment.”

They’re both less than entirely true. Semi-fictional stories.

A Strong Assertion, Backed Up by Unsubstantiated Opinion

Every human has some aspects of themselves about which they are a chameleon — they can adjust to a different environment so as to fit in better (or get ahead, or survive, or whatever definition of ‘success’ we’re optimizing for) — and some other aspects about which they are a scorpion — Fundamentally unchanging ways of being that might change over (a very long) time, but cannot easily be changed in the short term.

Getting better at understanding in what way we are a chameleon and in what ways we are a scorpion gives us the ability to figure out what environments we can actually work in, versus ones that will clash with the ways in which we are fundamentally fixed. It gives us the freedom to know that we can change something we need to change to be effective. It gives us the clarity and simplicity to know that if success in a situation requires changing something in our scorpion nature … it’s probably not going to happen.

Figuring It Out

I’ve no easy suggestions for figuring out the scorpion/chameleon dichotomy for oneself. Two heuristics I’ve found helpful have been:

  1. Previous failures: Honestly, if you’ve tried to change something about yourself a few times and consistently failed, this may be an indication you’re trying to change something fixed within you. At minimum, it suggests what you’re trying to change is going to be really quite hard to change, so you might not want to approach it with a blithe “oh yeah, I can totally shift that” attitude (See also: New Year’s Resolutions);
  2. You just don’t wanna: There are probably aspects of me I could change, but I’m quite clear I have no interest in changing. And I’ve been clear enough that I don’t want to change them long enough that if I change my mind tomorrow in response to some sort of circumstance, I should probably approach that newfound willingness with a great degree of skepticism and concern;

It’s worth noting we might be committed to an idea of how to be, but flexible and adaptable when it comes to how it actually shows up, or how strongly we practice it. For example, I’m a scorpion about giving feedback. An organization where I didn’t feel that most of the time I can give feedback relatively safely and candidly would be an organization in which I am unhappy (more precisely, I’d do it and likely eventually find my way ejected from the organization. Ask me how I know). That said, I’ve come to accept that there’s likely never going to be an organization where literally everyone I work with is going to be open to feedback — some people are better at this than others. Being able to have candid feedback conversations with my boss is not negotiable, but most other people are … more negotiable.