“Unfortunately the Donkey Died”


So, this happened …

My mom had a pet donkey when she was young.

At least, that’s what she told me. (I’m old enough now to know that it wasn’t true.) Her version of events was:

“When I was young, I had a pet donkey. I wanted it to learn how to survive without food. I was feeding it less and less, and it was going really well. Unfortunately the donkey died.”

I used to laugh at the joke because of the silliness of the idea. “What do you mean ‘unfortunately’, Mom? Of course it was going to die if you weren’t feeding it!”

As an adult, particularly one that celebrates the power of analogies, I can see that although this seems like such a silly scenario, it actually plays out in our lives more often than we’d like to admit.

Pause for a moment, and think what your personal equivalent might be, of training a donkey to survive without food, when actually you’re killing it.

Simple Definition

Unfortunately the Donkey Died: This is the story of training a donkey to survive without food, which of course ends in failure. This is a useful parallel for the things we do to achieve a goal, but which are actually destroying our ability to reach that goal.

Summarizing what it means

My mother* was teaching her donkey to survive without food. Until it starved to death. Ridiculous.

The first thing to note is that, without food, of course the donkey was going to die, regardless of how she interpreted the signs that the donkey was making good progress.

And the second thing to realize is that, although she was trying to make the donkey stronger, her actions were achieving the exact opposite: she was killing the donkey.

Warning: The actions you’re taking to achieve your goal might actually be guaranteeing your failure.

A very similar Real World(tm) scenario is being on a severely calorie-restricted diet.

You eat very little, you still feel OK for a while, you start losing weight. But your body needs sustenance, and primal cravings to eat eventually arise as you starve yourself. People generally find that, after they crash out of a diet like this, they end up not only regaining the weight they’ve lost, but they put on even more weight. Their body, having been starved, starts feasting more to compensate for the famine.

It was going well. Unfortunately the donkey died.

Or think about parents who get angry at their children when their children lose their tempers. Mom and Dad think their shouts are effective because the child suddenly starts to behave after the reprimand. But ultimately, the parent is showing the child that anger is indeed an appropriate response. And, while anger aimed at the children might get them under control in the heat of the moment, in the medium-term it creates a downward spiral of anger-begets-anger.

It was going well. Unfortunately the donkey died.

*Legal Note: No animals were harmed in the lead-up to this chapter being written. That donkey never existed. My mom is a very loving and caring person.

Discussing what it means

Why bother thinking about your Immortal Ass?

The basic idea of this chapter (and indeed all chapters in the #HashtagYourLife series) is simple. The real power, however, comes from seeing how that idea plays out in your own life, and then doing something meaningful about those situations.

In this case:

The actions being taken (starving the donkey) to achieve the goal (learning to survive without food) actually guarantees failure (the donkey will die).

When you #Hashtag Your Life …

  • You read a story (like the one about my mom’s donkey) which paints a picture that is fun and memorable
  • You remember the #hashtag of that scenario (in this case we call it: “Unfortunately the Donkey Died”)
  • You think about your own life (previous problems, current challenges, future uncertainties) and see where “Unfortunately the Donkey Died” applies (even though you may not have realized it until now)
  • You now have the awareness of what is actually going on (no confusion, no misinterpretation, no denial)
  • You are now able to respond correctly – and you will act on it!

This is exactly why more and more people are #hashtagging their life. Just like you.

#Hashtagging allows you to simplify your life, reduce overwhelm, and become more effective.

Which of these resonate with you?

Take a moment to see how these examples might be a perfect match for your “Unfortunately the Donkey Died” scenario, and how you have been (and may still be!) guilty of the same self-destructive behavior.

  • As mentioned earlier, if you’re on a very strict diet that simply isn’t sustainable, then short-term results should not be misinterpreted as evidence that “the diet is working”. Our bodies have evolved over millennia not to respond calmly to extended starvation.
  • I used to sleep a lot less than I do now, because of extensive international business travel and too much overtime. I convinced myself that my body had adapted well to getting less sleep. Until one day I realized that I had actually been using up my energy reserves in order to get by, and I had just reached empty. It took me nearly 6 months of oversleeping in order to get back to full strength. I wish I had realized sooner that I was killing my donkey!
  • Have you ever thought, in the very early stages of a relationship, that things were going well, but then suddenly it all just fell apart? You thought your regular messaging meant you two were connecting well. But actually, she was just politely replying, not wanting to be rude, but never initiating chats herself. The more you texted her, the more trapped she felt in a dialogue she didn’t want. Until she just stopped replying for good. (That never happened to you? Yeah, me neither.)
  • More generally, being clingy in a relationship is more likely to push the other person away, so perhaps isn’t a great idea.
  • We see donkey starvation in selling too. The seller thought the opportunity was progressing through the pipeline because the prospect kept answering more questions and attending more meetings. Then suddenly the sale collapsed. In reality, the prospect felt too much pressure all along, and their sense of obligation was fading fast as each polite response was met with another unwelcome push from the seller. “Unfortunately the prospect bailed.”
  • When we are younger, our bodies can take a fair beating. We eat badly, drink too much, don’t exercise … and yet we maintain reasonable health. “We’ve got great genetics!” we celebrate. We tell ourselves that our body has learned to cope with our lifestyle, and we will be awesome forever. Until we’re not. Your donkey was getting weaker all the time, but your pride drowned out the warnings.
  • Or like my friend (hi Ravi!) who wanted to run a marathon. He hated cold weather so he pseudo-trained through the winter in a nice gym on a treadmill, but then totally fell apart during the actual race. His training times looked so good on that little treadmill screen, but his legs hadn’t learned how to self-propel, and his quads didn’t build up strength for the hills. Time on the treadmill took away time on the road. Since the marathon was being run on the road, his donkey died.
  • Similarly, over-controlling parents also do the “starving donkey” thing. When “helicopter parents” are constantly checking up on their children, making them hit their deadlines, reminding them about their homework, they may come to the conclusion that they have succeeded with their child. They think they have taught the donkey to survive without food. But such children have never learned self-discipline, nor have they learned to motivate themselves. Things get done because those parents remain actively part of the process. As soon as those parents let go the pressure, the child’s performance collapses. And the parents are confused. “Why did my donkey die? But it was doing so well!”

The “Donkey” simplifies down to self-defeating behavior

The following three aspects effectively characterize the self-defeating behavior of “Unfortunately the Donkey Died”:

  • You are taking action in order to achieve a certain result
  • You may mistakenly see ‘signs’ that you’re progressing
  • But your actions are destroying your ability to achieve the desired outcome.

If you look back at a couple of the examples above (the ones which resonated with you), you’ll see that these three characteristics are indeed also a feature of your similar experiences.

What if you spot an “Unfortunately the Donkey Died” situation in your own life?

The first item of good news is, once you’ve identified a personal situation as being like “Unfortunately the Donkey Died”, then you have just increased your understanding of your own life, and you are now seeing the situation for what it really is!

The second item of good news is that, because you now see that your actions are effectively preventing you from hitting your goal, you can immediately change things. You should at least stop the wrong actions, then start taking the right actions to get you what you want.

1. Be realistic about what you are trying to achieve

  • You can’t teach a donkey to survive without food
  • You can’t sustain a diet where you’re always feeling starved
  • You can’t convince your children that anger is wrong if you’re always demonstrating anger as your preferred approach.

2. Stop starving your donkey

  • You’ve now realized that what you’re doing is actually killing your chances of success, so stop those self-destructive behaviors
  • It’s much easier to stop actions when you acknowledge the damage they’re causing
  • Don’t be so clingy. Don’t do everything for your child. Don’t destroy your health while chasing success.

3. Start feeding your donkey the right way

  • You can’t maintain weight loss by persisting with a starvation-like diet. So, find an option that is based on sustainable practice (such as eliminating sugars and reducing carbs, with some healthy exercise habits)
  • If you want your children to become more self-motivated and independent, then start to let go a little with aspects of their life, so that they can learn to make things happen themselves. It may take time, but at least you’re not training them out of being independent.

The “Donkey” simplifies down to self-defeating behavior (Yes, I’m repeating this section)

The following three aspects effectively characterize the self-defeating behavior of “Unfortunately the Donkey Died”:

  • You are taking action in order to achieve a certain result
  • You may mistakenly see ‘signs’ that you’re progressing
  • But your actions are destroying your ability to achieve the desired outcome.

Making it personal

What situations are happening in your life now (or perhaps you’ve experienced these in the past) which reflect the #hashtag-story of “Unfortunately the Donkey Died”?

Think in particular about your habits, like eating, exercising, and sleeping. What else?

Also consider scenarios where your actions do not match your words – whether in relation to your employees, your partner, or your children. Setting a bad example feeds the likelihood that you will get similar bad behavior in return.

Once you’ve highlighted a few examples, make sure you are absolutely clear on what behaviors or actions you should stop, and what you should be doing instead.

Now read #[One Push-up a Day] to turn these tiny little actions into a habit, which will finally give you the success you’ve been looking for.

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#[One Push-up a Day]
#[Being Defensive about Defensiveness]
#[The Average Photo that you DO Take]
#[Umbrella in the Sun]

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