Many years ago in a small Indian village, a farmer had the misfortune of owing a large sum of money to a village moneylender. The moneylender, who was old and ugly, fancied the farmer’s beautiful daughter. So he proposed a bargain.
He said he would forgo the farmer’s debt if he could marry his daughter. Both the farmer and his daughter were horrified by the proposal.
So the cunning money-lender suggested that they let providence decide the matter.
He told them that he would put a black pebble and a white pebble into an empty money bag. Then the girl would have to pick one pebble from the bag.
1) If she picked the black pebble, she would become his wife and her father’s debt would be forgiven.
2) If she picked the white pebble she need not marry him and her father’s debt would still be forgiven.
3) But if she refused to pick a pebble, her father would be thrown into jail.
They were standing on a pebble strewn path in the farmer’s field. As they talked, the moneylender bent over to pick up two pebbles. As he picked them up, the sharp-eyed girl noticed that he had picked up two black pebbles and put them into the bag. He then asked the girl to pick a pebble from the bag.
Careful analysis would produce three possibilities:
1.The girl should refuse to take a pebble.
2. The girl should show that there were two black pebbles in the bag and expose the money-lender as a cheat.
3. The girl should pick a black pebble and sacrifice herself in order to save her father from his debt and imprisonment.
Take a moment to ponder over the story. What would you recommend to the girl to do?
STOP! THINK AND DECIDE BEFORE PROCEEDING FURTHER
Well, here is what she did —
The girl put her hand into the moneybag and drew out a pebble. Without looking at it, she fumbled and let it fall onto the pebble-strewn path where it immediately became lost among all the other pebbles.
“Oh, how clumsy of me,” she said. “But never mind, if you look into the bag for the one that is left, you will be able to tell which pebble I picked.”
Since the remaining pebble is black, it must be assumed that she had picked the white one. And since the money-lender dared not admit his dishonesty, the girl changed what seemed an impossible situation into an extremely advantageous one.
[Author unknown, but greatly appreciated! If you or anyone you know has a proprietary interest in this story please authenticate and I will be happy to credit, or remove, as appropriate.]
I can take off in a few different directions from this story. My first inclination was to talk about out-of-the-box thinking, about innovation … but somehow it got me thinking about a much bigger issue.
Ends and Means, and the former justifying the latter.
This simple story suggests to me the very reason why I adamantly do not believe that ends justifies means.
The clever girl was faced with quite a dilemma, and she found a way out. I don’t know how she had the wherewithal to come up with that impressive solve, but she did. And, it’s a story, so we can forgive the oversimplification of the process. Although I’ve met and I know a lot of very bright people that think fast on their feet like this girl, so it’s not like it’s impossible…
The story helps me to consider that impossible situations can, in fact, be resolved. There is always a way out. What seems impossible, isn’t. When we are faced with a situation that seems impossible, what we should in fact see and hear are the warning lights and buzzers indicating that our understanding and knowledge of the matter are simply insufficient.
But those aren’t the only warning lights and buzzers we’re going to hear on this trip to the ends justify the means.
When we believe that the ends justify the means is precisely when we find ourselves at the intersection of insufficient thinking and degradation of standards.
Saying that the ends justify the means is really only justifying a low quality answer. It is accepting a knowingly less than acceptable course of action. It is lowering the bar to a height that our current thinking can leap over. It is lowering our standards and compromising our values, for the sake of expediency and/or efficiency.
I take my cue from Voltaire: No problem can stand the assault of sustained thinking.
There is always a way; always a better answer. What seems impossible, isn’t. Instead of accepting an unacceptable answer, can you believe in possibility, and keep thinking?
Even when you’re faced with making a choice between two black pebbles?