The Myth of the Hundredth Monkey

Dr. Jean Bolen:

The hundredth monkey is the name of a new myth. It’s a story that has arisen, been repeated, and written about only in the last two decades. It is of very recent origin and yet, like Greek myths that tell of the Trojan War, it’s not clear where fact ends and metaphor begins. The story was based on scientific observations of monkey colonies in Japan.

Off the shores of Japan, scientists had been studying monkey colonies on many separate islands for over thirty years. In order to keep track of the monkeys, they would drop sweet potatoes on the beach for them to eat. The monkeys would come out of the trees to get the sweet potatoes, and would be in plain sight to be observed. One day an 18-month-old female monkey named Imo started to wash her sweet potato in the sea before eating it. We can imagine that it tasted better without the grit and sand; maybe it even was slightly salty. Imo showed her playmates and her mother how to do it, and her friends showed their mothers, and gradually more and more monkeys began to wash their sweet potatoes instead of eating them grit and all. At first, only the adults who imitated their children learned, and gradually others did also. One day, the observers saw that all the monkeys on that particular island were washing their sweet potatoes.

Although this was significant, what was even more fascinating to note was that when this shift happened, the behavior of monkeys on all the other islands changed as well; they now all washed their sweet potatoes-despite the fact that monkey colonies on the different islands had no direct contact with each other.

The “hundredth monkey” was the hypothesized anonymous monkey that tipped the scales for the culture the one whose change in behavior signaled the critical number of changed monkeys, after which all the monkeys on all the islands washed their sweet potatoes.

The hundredth monkey is an allegory that gives hope to people who have been working on changing themselves and saving the planet, and wondering if their individual efforts will make any difference at all. As a myth, the hundredth monkey is a statement that affirms a commitment to work on something, like ridding Earth of nuclear weapons-even if the effect is invisible for a long time. If there is to be a hundredth monkey there has to be a human equivalent of Imo and her friends; someone has to be the twenty-seventy and the eighty-first and the ninety-ninth monkey, before a new archetype can come into being.

British biologist Rupert Sheldrake believes that “morphogenic fields” shape the form, development, and behavior of organisms–even if there are no conventional forms of contact between them. Fields are built up over time by the repetitive actions of animals or people of the same species. When a certain number of the members of the species learn the behavior, it is automatically acquired by the other members of the species.

Do what you can each day to bring forth change.

Joan Didion on Self-Respect

From On Self Respect in Slouching Towards Bethlehem:

Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs.

Self-respect is something that our grandparents, whether or not they had it, knew all about. They had instilled in them, young, a certain discipline, the sense that one lives by doing things one does not particularly want to do, by putting fears and doubts to one side, by weighing immediate comforts against the possibility of larger, even intangible, comforts.

Self-respect is a discipline, a habit of mind that can never be faked but can be developed, trained, coaxed forth.

To have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference. If we do not respect ourselves, we are on the one hand forced to despise those who have so few resources as to consort with us, so little perception as to remain blind to our fatal weaknesses. On the other, we are peculiarly in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out — since our self-image is untenable — their false notion of us. We flatter ourselves by thinking this compulsion to please others an attractive trait: a gist for imaginative empathy, evidence of our willingness to give. Of course I will play Francesca to your Paolo, Helen Keller to anyone’s Annie Sullivan; no expectation is too misplaced, no role too ludicrous. At the mercy of those we cannot but hold in contempt, we play roles doomed to failure before they are begun, each defeat generating fresh despair at the urgency of divining and meting the next demand made upon us.

A Higher Standard

As a consultant, I pushed empowerment. I believe that those closest to the work know the work the best and are the right people to make decisions about the work they do. I’ve helped leaders make strong efforts at empowerment and find that the change from paternalistic cultures is slow.

Peter Block described a simulation his colleague Joel Henning designed, which rings true in most of my experience:

Three teams role-played high-control patriarchal leadership, cosmetic empowerment, and genuine participation and empowerment. The high control group was quiet, had their arms folded, and had one or two pale, informational questions at the end. When asked their feelings about the meeting, they said they felt controlled and punished.

The cosmetic empowerment team had many questions, all of which were cynical and reeked of barter and deal making. They asked, “What’s in it for me?” and “Where did this fad come from?” They wanted the leaders to prove their sincerity. There was a lot of laughter and energy during the meeting. Upon reflection, they felt manipulated and doubtful, although they admired the cleverness of the strategy.

The genuine participation group went last and when they shared their intention to involve everyone in defining the program and solution the employees would have none of it. They wanted a common vision and strategy, they wanted to know what was expected of them and were fed up with this soft, open-ended non-solution. They questioned who was in charge and who was going to steer the ship to a safe harbor. They wanted to know what management was going to do to fix the problem. In processing the meeting, they felt management had abdicated. The employees had 20 suggestions about how the team could have done a better job and voted no confidence.

What disturbed Block?

  • We resent patriarchy and its dominance,
  • We become cynical at attempts at cosmetic change,
  • Yet faced with the prospects of real participation and accountability for an unpredictable tomorrow, patriarchy begins to look better and better.

Block concluded that while we may talk blithely about the end of command and control, emotionally we miss it when it’s gone. If we are offered real choice and power, we push our leaders back into a controlling and directive stance. Our lips may say no to a benevolent monarch, but our eyes say yes. Leaders see the longing for good parenting in our eyes, and they have little choice but to respond.

Genuine empowerment carries freedom, responsibility, and accountability with it. We get to make choices about the work that we do. We get to select between alternatives that matter. It is our job to make our decisions real and to implement action steps. We get rewarded or punished, praised or criticized for our choices and actions. We get to act like adults and are treated like grownups. Many of us don’t want this level of adulthood in our work lives. Many of us, instead, want freedom from responsibility and escape from conflict.

Genuine involvement is messy, difficult, and time consuming. Reactive problem-solvers have to learn to be imaginative anticipators and that is hard to do—maybe impossible. People disconnected from others throughout their competitive work histories have to learn to listen, engage, connect, cooperate, compromise, empathize with others, and find win-win solutions. People who only feel okay when they are accomplishing a task have to learn to sit still, think, and engage with others.

Many of us don’t want to develop new emotional and intellectual muscles. When put in a situation that asks us to stretch, we can’t get away fast enough. We may prefer to be one of the walking dead so prevalent in our organizations. Aliveness is way too threatening for us.

Why do we need a higher standard?

In the past decade alone billions were spent on leadership development and employee involvement and empowerment programs. How’s it working for us?

Today Gallup research shows that 74% of American workers are disengaged clock-watchers who cannot wait to go home. We know that the vast majority of change efforts are deemed failures by those who lead them. The sustainability of Fortune 500 companies pales in comparison to its potential.

We can’t afford to continue with the status quo: Not as a nation, a company, or a person.

Einstein’s Fatherly Advice on the Secret to Learning

My dear Albert,

Yesterday I received your dear letter and was very happy with it. I was already afraid you wouldn’t write to me at all any more. You told me when I was in Zurich, that it is awkward for you when I come to Zurich. Therefore I think it is better if we get together in a different place, where nobody will interfere with our comfort. I will in any case urge that each year we spend a whole month together, so that you see that you have a father who is fond of you and who loves you. You can also learn many good and beautiful things from me, something another cannot as easily offer you. What I have achieved through such a lot of strenuous work shall not only be there for strangers but especially for my own boys. These days I have completed one of the most beautiful works of my life, when you are bigger, I will tell you about it.

I am very pleased that you find joy with the piano. This and carpentry are in my opinion for your age the best pursuits, better even than school. Because those are things which fit a young person such as you very well. Mainly play the things on the piano which please you, even if the teacher does not assign those. That is the way to learn the most, that when you are doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice that the time passes. I am sometimes so wrapped up in my work that I forget about the noon meal…[Emphasis Added]


Einstein described the experience of flow when we are doing what we love, have natural talents for, and learn easily.

One task for us in life is to become mindful of our natural talents and then to develop them through experience and new learning. Leaders need to develop people’s strengths not their weaknesses.

We become great when we develop our talents.


When I decided to change careers, Diane Olson asked what I wanted to do. I said I wanted to return to the University of Minnesota and complete a Ph.D. in psychology. Diane said, “No you don’t. They probably won’t let you in because of your age (47 at the time), and if they do, they will drive you nuts. You want to go to Union.”

I set out to learn about The Union Institute. I learned that Union had been the learning model for the 21st century for more than 40 years. Targeted for life-long learners in mid-career, Union offered an accredited program of distant learning that allowed people around the world the opportunity to create a program around their unique interests and experiences. I submitted my application to the Union Institute and College and received a letter from the local faculty member, Michael Patton. An excerpt:

I’ve just read your Union application. I found your story riveting and your vision inspiring. There’s no question that you’ll be accepted. Your application is one of the strongest I’ve ever read.”

Union provided me with a series of adventures and “mini-journeys” that expanded my awareness and connected me with people both similar to and different from me.

The first of these adventures was a 10-day entry colloquium held at the Biosphere II near Oracle, Arizona. Twenty learners and two faculty members from across the United States came together at this mystical place on the edge of the Coronado National Forest that provides a home to a biosphere within a biosphere.

I felt vulnerable and intimidated. Twenty-six years had passed since I had graduated from college. I didn’t have a master’s degree. Did I belong here? I thought of leaving but couldn’t. I was committed to my vision. My new colleagues — artists, writers, teachers, psychologists, philosophers — had experienced life, were each wounded in their own way, were on the creative edges of their fields, and inspired me with their idealism. They welcomed me into their worlds, and their worlds felt natural. I went through my fear.

A feeling of community formed quickly, and the days were intense and powerful. I was at the right place. The learners formed relationships and shared their lives, hopes, and dreams with one another. I met people who would play an ongoing role in my life as friends and teachers.

The time flew by. Soon it was time to say goodbye to the courageous people I met who took the risk to live their passions ─ with no guaranteed outcomes, and many with few resources. Learners and faculty had a powerful closing ritual. We planted new desert growth and took a small piece of the desert home. Extraordinary people connected with themselves, with each other, and with nature.

Some months later, I attended a five-day seminar on the Harlem Renaissance in, ironically, Plantation, Florida as part of my Union program. The Harlem Renaissance was a period of great creativity in Harlem that began shortly after World War I and continued into the 1930s. When the seminar convened, I looked around the room at the participants: one black man, three or four white women, and about 15 black women. I was the only white man. Two black women led the seminar.

I asked questions about the black experience after World War I and often blushed of embarrassment at my ignorance. I heard black women describe how black men, still dressed in their military uniforms, were lynched and burned in the South after World War 1. I asked, “Who were the people who did these evil things?” The angry black man said, “They were people just like you. They were white Americans, and their behavior was acceptable in their communities.” I had heard these stories before, but hearing them from a black man and black women made the descriptions devastatingly real. As a white man, I felt ashamed of my race.

This seminar was powerful. I listened, watched, and learned as these world-wise women, artists all, talked of their families and communities and of the meaning they found in the sufferings of their race. One of the instructors said I was the bravest person in the room for being there. I don’t think so. I think each of the women there lived more courage every day than I had ever been called to do.

The seminar was painful and humbled and inspired me. I learned about and felt the depths of humanity — from pure evil to nobility — in this real experience. The women demonstrated in their lives the importance of history, culture, and selfless service. Sometimes we find ourselves in the presence of others who elevate us by their substance, credibility, and essential goodness. I am a better person because of those noble and lion-hearted people. No one invited me to lunch or dinner over the five days, but I felt intimately connected to these teachers and one joined my academic committee.

I spent 3 ½ years with Union. It was a peak experience in my life.

Excerpt from Learning to Live: Essays on Life and Leadership


Carl Sagan on the Meaning of Life

In the past few decades, the United States and the Soviet Union have accomplished something that — unless we destroy ourselves first — will be remembered a thousand years from now: the first close-up exploration of dozens of other worlds. Together we have found much out there that is magnificent, instructive and of practical value. But we have found no trace, no hint of life. The Earth is an anomaly. In all the solar system, it is, so far as we know, the only inhabited planet.

We humans are one among millions of separate species who live in a world burgeoning, overflowing with life. And yet, most species that ever were are no more. After flourishing for one hundred fifty million years, the dinosaurs became extinct. Every last one. No species is guaranteed its tenure on this planet. And humans, the first beings to devise the means for their own destruction, have been here for only several million years.

We are rare and precious because we are alive, because we can think. We are privileged to influence and perhaps control our future. We have an obligation to fight for life on Earth — not just for ourselves but for all those, humans and others, who came before us and to whom we are beholden, and for all those who, if we are wise enough, will come after. There is no cause more urgent than to survive to eliminate on a global basis the growing threats of nuclear war, environmental catastrophe, economic collapse and mass starvation. These problems were created by humans and can only be solved by humans. No social convention, no political system, no economic hypothesis, no religious dogma is more important.

The hard truth seems to be this: We live in a vast and awesome universe in which, daily, suns are made and worlds destroyed, where humanity clings to an obscure clod of rock. The significance of our lives and our fragile realm derives from our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life’s meaning. We would prefer it to be otherwise, of course, but there is no compelling evidence for a cosmic Parent who will care for us and save us from ourselves. It is up to us.

From Brain Pickings

We are responsible for the lives we create or do not create.