A Tap on the Glass - Vol. 53 - One More Time

on .

Steven Wright, famous comedian and social commentator, got it correct about change when he supposedly said,

"I have a microwave fireplace at home.
You can lay down in front of the fire all night in eight minutes."

Sometimes we expect microwave fireplace results when it comes to improvement and change, not only in ourselves but at our work or in people that we interact with.

But improvement is never fast is it? It depends on putting out effort for creation and realization of new possibilities. THAT can never occur without some amount of trial and error.

Generally, I think everyone has some sort of unrealized potential. Improvement is about understanding and capturing ideas and possibilities, reworking those ideas into a usable form that makes some sense to you and then turning them into actions and behaviors. This unrealized potential can be coached and supported and individuals generally need the support and coaching of others in order to be successful. But there can be a number of issues and difficulties.

The situation reminds me of a story:

Two caterpillars are conversing and a beautiful butterfly floats by.
One caterpillar turns and says to the other,
"You'll never get me up on one of those butterfly things."

Before moving on, consider the meaning of this story. There are some wheels within wheels spinning here and some important lessons on perspective, leadership and creativity methinks.

So stop for a moment and consider the story again. I’ll wait… (whistling…)


It may seem like what John McEnroe said on losing to Tim Mayotte in a professional indoor tennis championship:

"This taught me a lesson, but I'm not sure what it is."

I've heard the caterpillar and butterfly story a few times in the past, but had forgotten it until I had a phone call one day with MY old mentor.

What I remember from it is that people almost always "get it" as I did when I first read it.

But there is also a major paradox in the story as it applies to personal growth, managing change, and leading performance improvement. I can state it as:

It's Dangerous to think you know "The Answer."

When I first heard this story about the caterpillars and the butterfly, I assumed that it was about resistance -- a single answer. Seemed logical to me. Maybe that’s how you read it too.

And the first time I heard a room full of people talk about the meaning of the story in a training seminar, I was shocked by their answers, since most were not about my answer but focused on other themes.


  • Caterpillars have no need to fly. They are well-grounded! (always a clown in the group)
  • Caterpillars can eat anything green and find food everywhere.
  • Butterflies are a stage beyond caterpillars.
  • Butterflies have to fly to get anywhere. Caterpillars can crawl and climb.
  • It's easier for butterflies to develop perspective than caterpillars.
  • We can attempt to resist and suffer the stress and difficulties.
  • You have to stop being a caterpillar in order to become a butterfly.
  • Change is not always a conscious decision. But change will occur, inevitably.
  • We can choose to be active participants in change. Or not, maybe. (?)
  • We go through stages of development and butterflies are one stage closer to death. (I think this guy needs therapy)
  • Risk avoidance is normal.
  • Change is often actively resisted.
  • Change is inevitable.
  • Caterpillars don't like wings.
  • Caterpillars must hate flying since they don't try.
  • There is a need for vision and perspective -- we're all on a journey.
  • Caterpillars focus only on eating and survival.
  • Butterflies get blown around by the wind and caterpillars can drag their feet!
  • Metamorphosis is an uncontrollable process with an unclear result.
  • Metamorphosis is a dark, damp, confined place, so I'm scared! (she was sitting in the corner. Go figure…)

and my favorite answer:

I'll NEVER be a butterfly; My mother was a moth.

How many times do we self-limit our perception of what is around us and our thinking because we "know the answer" and thus don't even think about considering possibilities?

I think this is a very common trait. And one deserving of some reflection and analysis. It's all about trying to look at the BIG picture and how your activities and actions affect your job and people around you.

When people talk about this story of caterpillars and butterflies among themselves, a most remarkable thing usually happens: They discover that they share different perspectives and a diversity of ideas, which is common when people discuss things.

Yet most of us, when we know The Answer, will generally self-limit any consideration of other possibilities and limit our thinking.

The fact that we can generate other ideas is a most interesting outcome. All of us have the capability to generate ideas and possibilities. What we need is a simple tool and shared base of experience and common ground. Most would agree that being a butterfly is a "higher existence" than remaining a caterpillar.

And the story also links to some key learning points on leading change and dis-un-empowering (an English Professor would slap me for that one) people, including:


  • Even though we often resist change and risk, it is often inevitable!
  • Change will occur and we can choose to be active participants and go with the flow -- or we can attempt to resist and suffer the stresses.
  • Each of us goes through many stages of development, a process that occurs repeatedly over time.
  • Caterpillars focus on eating and survival. There is more to life than this.
  • What is needed is vision and overall perspective -- we're all on a journey forward.
  • We need to be engaged and involved in the process itself rather than feel imprisoned by our environment. Change cannot be done "to" us -- forcing the action typically generates active resistance to the process.
  • Possibilities are endless! Choosing to change is a really important part of improvement.

"One cannot become a butterfly by remaining a caterpillar."

Change and personal growth is all about discovering the inevitability of change and the need for one to clarify a vision of the future.

Our growth as an Association is rooted in the same pretext.

Now here is another paradox: YOU now have a framework that you can use with other people in the hope that they will understand this paradox of knowing the answer.

A challenge is now given to you to find a possibility of sharing this with another person and broadening some thinking.

That is the "training" part of this article -- you now have a new tool! How might you apply this to a new potential employee or student considering you?

Let's continue to illustrate my thinking on change with a few facts and another story.


  • There are 140,000+ species of moths. There are 16,000 butterfly species but we see them more often because they fly during the day - moths generally fly only at night.
  • One difference between a moth and a butterfly is in the nature of their antennae. Moths have "feathery" antenna and butterflies have a bulb on a stalk. Their wing structures are also different.
  • Most moths have tremendously sensitive antenna that can sense minute quantities of their sexual attractant pheromone, in the parts per billion quantities.
  • The Monarch Butterfly of North America migrates great distances to areas slightly West of Mexico City, where they gather in the billions to reproduce. They then migrate back as far as the Canadian Border. They often feed on milkweed, which also serves to protect them -- birds find their taste aversive and will avoid eating them.
  • Some caterpillars eat as much as 27,000 times their body weight to support their lives as flying insects. The big green adult Luna Moths lack a mouth and actually live only on the energy stored during their larval stage -- their sole focus of their adult lives is reproduction.
  • Like some people we know, certain caterpillars like the Crystalline Limacodid, have bristles that dispense toxic chemicals. Getting too close to them can be a very painful experience! And many moths, butterflies and caterpillars use camouflage as a way of protecting themselves in an attempt to hide from predators -- we see the same behaviors in organizations and offices everywhere.
  • One moth native to South America has a foot-long proboscis that it uses to sip nectar from deep-throated flowers while another moth has a proboscis that pierces the skin and can drink the blood of animals.

Thus, we've all now learned more about caterpillars and butterflies. Can we apply it to managing issues of change?

A few years back, in a telephone conversation, Ron Frieze (my old mentor) asked me, "Do you know about caterpillars and butterflies?"

Being somewhat an expert on the subject after all my research and well aware of Ron’s penchant for dangling a hook at me, I of course said,


Ron then shared a great quote and training punch line and what makes a wonderful transition to issues of personal and organizational change.

He said:

"In the change from being a caterpillar to becoming a butterfly, you're nothing more than a yellow, gooey sticky mess." (Ron is a very deep spiritual guy when he’s sober)

We need to deal with the gooey glop that most people find uncomfortable in our day to day business of getting people into, through and out of school.

But you have to “change in order to change” and that will involve going through the discomfort of being less and less a caterpillar while you are in the process of becoming a butterfly.

Expect the transformation process to be somewhat uncomfortable and note that it takes some level of commitment. A key is understanding the process and perception of the realities of the change.

Our natural senses give us some type of perceptual sensitivity that is incredible. Biologically, if your physical senses are working normally, you can:

  • See a burning candle from 28 miles away if you are dark-adapted
  • Feel on your fingertips a pressure that depresses your skin .00004 inch
  • Smell one drop of perfume diffused through a three room apartment
  • Taste .04 ounce of table salt dissolved in 530 quarts of water
  • Feel the weight of a bee's wing falling on your cheek from less than half an inch away
  • Distinguish among more than 300,000 different colors
  • Gauge the direction of a sound's origin based on a .00003-second difference in its arrival from one ear to another

So, we have the sensitivity to be extremely perceptive. But we typically block our sensitivity and it goes unrealized and underutilized, just like most of our other capabilities and potential.

Applied to personal growth and change, we often limit ideas and possibilities for improvement because we already "know the answers." (ahhh…we’ve come full circle!)

And by limiting our thinking, we are limiting our possibilities that come from successful accomplishment of change and the rewards of self-improvement.

Our "beliefs" make it difficult to see what is obvious, and that prevents us from improving.

Make it a point to believe in yourself today and realize what you're capable of. Just because it’s always been done one way, doesn’t mean it’s the right way.

Be the Butterfly!