Which Wolf Are You Feeding?

By Thomas Twombly, President

Years ago, I heard a story. The original version is long lost to me now, so I apologize for not giving appropriate credit to the original author here, but its message captured my attention. Ever since, it has shaped my thoughts about the importance of principled leadership, a courageous long-term perspective, and fostering shared values to overcome the internal struggles with which we all contend. For reasons that are becoming more urgent to me by the day, I feel compelled to recreate it here:

There was an elder chieftain of a proud and noble people who had lived for many decades. In that time, he had guided his nation successfully through countless days of challenge and hardship. As the seasons inevitably turned, he had also been present with them through many other days of happiness and abundance. Over time, with patience and persistence, his people had prospered, and the chief himself was blessed with many children, and eventually many, many grandchildren too.

One afternoon he gathered all his grandchildren together and led them on a walk into the forest, to a mountain meadow that had been a sacred meeting place for generations. He sat them down in a broad semi-circle at the center of the meadow, around a well-worn stone that had served as a council seat for him, and for many of his forebears through the ages. After a long pause, he said to them: “A terrible fight is going on inside of me,” as he tapped his chest with the fist of his right hand. “It is a fight between two wolves. One wolf is the wolf of fear, anger, arrogance and greed. The other is the wolf of courage, kindness, humility, and trust.” The children sat silent and still, listening intently to their grandfather’s words. After a pause he continued, “This fight is to the end, for only one wolf can win.” He slowly swept his eyes across the expectant faces in front of him, silently connecting for a moment with each of them. “And the same fight that is going on inside of me, is also going on inside of you, and inside the heart of every man and woman who walks this earth.” Their eyes widened as they pondered his words. After a short while, his youngest granddaughter slowly stood up, and then softly asked the chief, “Grandfather, which wolf will win the fight?” He looked at her for a long moment, the gentle lines of many years of hard-won wisdom showing around his deep brown eyes. Then he said quietly, “The one you feed.”

Beliefs matter. They impact our expectations and they inform our behavior. They shape outcomes for ourselves and for others. They can profoundly influence long-term results, in both good ways and bad. Be mindful of them. Our beliefs are powerful.

For proof, recall the famous experiments conducted on school-aged children in the 1970s, and the stunning juxtaposition created among a group of perfectly intelligent kids who were randomly separated into two different classes, and then falsely led to believe that one class was uniquely gifted, while the other class was irredeemably below-average. After a few days with teachers who had been fed similarly false beliefs about their respective student’s innate capabilities, each class was then tested. Both displayed clear test results that confirmed those baseline expectations. Ouch.

For another example, consider Roger Bannister, the first human ever to run a mile in under four minutes. For generations before him, that barrier was believed to be impossible to breach, and perhaps even fatal for a human being to attempt. Yet after Bannister finally shattered that belief on May 6th, 1954, the record was broken again by another sprinter within only 45 days. Since then more than 1,400 others have broken through a limitation what was once thought completely impregnable, and the capacity of human athletic ability continues to expand to this day.

There is no doubt, life can be very hard. Success can be difficult and elusive. Every single day is full of risks, and nothing is guaranteed. All the time we are faced with uncertainty, doubt, and limiting fears that we might never have enough, that we’re not truly prepared for the challenges we face, and that we may come up woefully short in just about everything we do. Every setback we experience, and every “failure” we suffer through can feed those fears to the point where they become overwhelming. Unchecked, they breed anger, distrust, feelings of scarcity, arrogance and greed.

I have felt those emotions. I still feel them at times – as an individual, as a husband, as a father, as a son, as a brother, as an advisor, as a business owner, as a leader, and as an investor in all those endeavors. You’re the same. The fight that is going on inside of me is going on inside of you, too.

The only consistent antidote I have ever found is to surround myself purposefully with good people; friends, clients and colleagues I like, trust and respect, and with whom I experience fulfillment in sacrificing my own selfish impulses in favor of a greater, long-range, mutual success. Then to do my dead-level best to serve their interests with courage, kindness, humility and trust. And with the deep conviction that with patience, discipline and faith in the future, it will pay off for all of us. As long as we keep feeding the right wolf, I have every reason to believe it will.

Thank you, again, for your confidence and trust.

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