The Penguin Principle: Faulty or Perfect Design?

To perform at our peak we need to let go of the notion that we can be everything to everyone, and instead accept ourselves for who we are, strengthen our strengths and find those environmental conditions that allow us to unfold optimally.

How often have you tried to be a square peg in a round hole? How many times have you envied others for their skills and competencies? And how often have you whimpered about your weaknesses and all the things you can’t do?

In a world which constantly reminds us that – if we want something bad enough and if we work for it hard enough we can do and be anything, we sometimes seem to lose focus of our natural strengths and uniqueness. Have you ever considered that maybe not everyone is built for everything? Yup, that’s right. And you know what? That’s a good thing.

In fact, the importance of this lesson was brought back home to me when I watched a YouTube clip by Dr Eckart von Hirschhausen, a physician turned comedian. Now, before you eagerly click the link, please let me tell you that the video is in German. For those of you whose German is a bit rusty, here is a loose summary of what the good doctor shared.

The Penguin Principle

Whilst on a cruise, Dr von Hirschhausen had the opportunity to visit a zoo in Norway, an opportunity he welcomed after having spent numerous days at sea. It was there that he saw a penguin standing on a cliff. Looking at the penguin, he thought, “What a poor creature: short wings, stocky stature and no knees! Faulty design, for sure!”

What followed next was a bit of an eye-opener for him, though. The penguin jumped into the water and started swimming. Now if you’ve ever seen a penguin swim you would know they do it effortlessly, elegantly and with fun. In fact, with the ability to cover up to 2000 km using the equivalent energy of one litre of petrol, they are most certainly effectively built for swimming.

And this little incident reminded the physician of two things: firstly, how quickly he (and a lot of others dare I say) judge people and just how wrong such judgements can be, especially if we’re only able to observe the person in one context; and secondly, just how important it is to be in the right environment to be able to showcase your strengths.

Too many people, he concluded, are too fixated on eliminating their weaknesses and on trying to be something they are not. In fact: “If you were born as a penguin then even seven years of psychotherapy won’t turn you into a giraffe in this lifetime.”

In other words, stop trying to be like others; accept yourself for who you are and focus on strengthening your strengths and finding your optimal environment.

Conditions for the Perfect or a Faulty Design

Harsh? Maybe. True? Most definitely. For a lot of us it is time to ask some critical questions: Who are we? Is it a penguin, a giraffe or something entirely different? What does that mean for us? What are our strengths? Why do we need to flourish? What type of environment and what type of nourishment? What elevates us and what shuts us down? Personally as well as professionally?

Knowing who we are matters. What matters, even more, is accepting and embracing who we are: our unique strengths and weaknesses. Recognising that we only thrive in certain environments and that we might not be built for superior performance in others cannot only excel you forward but also be an incredibly liberating thought. You don’t have to be everything to everyone. You only have to focus on developing the best design of you.

A dynamic, freedom-loving and innovative individual is unlikely to thrive in a traditional, routine-driven and conservative role, institution or industry – and vice versa. And that’s okay.  You will only feel fulfilled, your strengths will only shine and you will only be able to unfold your potential with the appropriate nourishment and in the right environment: accepting yourself as a penguin if you’re a penguin and as a giraffe if you’re a giraffe.

A great example of the power of the right environment and the right nourishment is California’s Death Valley. Generally known for its unforgiving heat, steady drought and yet geologically interesting scenery, every so often, in the case of excessive rainfalls or through snow melts in spring, it shows its potential to transform its otherwise stark landscape into a sea of blossoming wildflowers. Its 2005 super bloom is the perfect illustration of how a positive shift in environmental conditions can encourage seeds, planted just underneath the surface, to sprout, break through the earth and unfold their potential in all their beauty and glory.

People are similar. Nourish them correctly, accept them for who they are and expose them to the right environment and you’ll be surprised by their capability, enthusiasm and creativity. Focus on their strengths and support their skills, and chances are they develop into their perfect design.

A malnourished person, however, is likely to wilt right in front of you: their enthusiasm slowly but surely drying out and their capability remaining dormant – just underneath the surface. Even worse, focus on their weaknesses or try to make a giraffe out of a penguin and chances are that – sooner or later – they will start looking like a faulty design.

So to perform at our peak we need to let go of the notion that we can be everything to everyone, and instead accept ourselves for who we are, strengthen our strengths and find those environmental conditions that allow us to unfold optimally.  And – most importantly – allow and encourage others to do the same.

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