by Matthew Arnold Stern
The following is a speech I presented at Irvine Toastmasters on 30 April, 1996. I took a well-known motivational story I read back in my “self-help” days and added a twist to it.
Some time ago, my travels took me to San Bernardino County. I was driving up highway 215 through the agricultural area. The trip was uneventful. I passed miles and miles of farms and cattle ranges until something unusual caught my attention.
I pulled off the highway and drove over to a chicken farm at the side of the road. I noticed a flock of chickens eating their breakfast of grain and seeds in the yard, but I saw a bird in the middle of the flock that clearly wasn’t a chicken. I took a closer look. It was a golden eagle — a beautiful male one with golden brown feathers. I could tell that if it opened its wings, it would have a massive wingspan.
But what was more unusual than the fact that this eagle would be in the middle of a flock of chickens was that it acted like a chicken. It scratched its talons in the dirt. It used its massive curved and pointed beak to dig seeds and grains out of the ground. It even sounded like a chicken — “Bwack, bwack, bwack, bwack!”
Puzzled, I decided to go into the farm and investigate. I spoke to the farmer, who was a tall, lanky man, and he told me what happened:
“One day, I was working in the yard when I saw this nest up in a tree. I could tell that the nest had been abandoned for some time. I looked up in that nest, and I saw this egg. I knew that if I left that egg there, it wasn’t gonna last too long. So, I took it back and put it in my incubator. And one day, it hatched. And there was this baby eagle. Well, the only thing I could do was to raise it with my chickens.”
I said, “You saved that eagle’s life, but look what happened to it. It now thinks it’s a chicken.”
The farmer agreed, “Yes, I know.”
I added, “You know, it’s a shame for such a majestic, beautiful bird to be living like a lowly chicken instead of soaring in the air.”
The farmer said, “I thoroughly agree with you.”
I exclaimed, “And we ought to do something to help it!”
This was when the farmer began to protest. “Sir, there’s something you must know…”
But I wasn’t in the mood for any disagreement. “This eagle is living far below its potential. It needs to reach the full flowering of its eaglehood. It need to be a self-actualized eagle!”
“I agree with you, sir,” the farmer argued, “But there’s something you must know…”
I grew impatient. “Well, if you won’t help this poor eagle, I will!”
So, I went back to the car and got my falconry gloves (which I always carry with me). I picked up the eagle and put him in my car.
We drove into the mountains. We went up a steep and winding road until we came to a bluff overlooking the valley. It was a beautiful view, and I could tell there were plenty of warm air currents for the eagle to glide upon.
So I told the eagle, “Look at these beautiful skies. Wouldn’t you like to spread your wings and soar in them? Wouldn’t you like to explore this beautiful valley and be master of all you survey. C’mon, buddy. Spread your wings and take off!”
You know, that bird didn’t a budge an inch. It sat on my arms for hours! So, I decided it was time to try another approach.
So we drove down the mountain until we came to a meadow in the foothills. I noticed that there were plenty of field mice scurrying around. They didn’t look tasty to me, but I figured my feathered friend would consider them filet mignon with fur.
I said to the eagle, “Look at all these mice running around here. I bet you’d find them tastier than the grain and seeds you’ve been eating. Wouldn’t you like to fly off my arm and chow down?”
Well, the eagle did jump off my arm. I was beginning to feel optimistic, but that eagle just hopped down on the ground and started digging around for seeds.
I was beginning to get frustrated. So, I drove back up the mountain until I came to a large pine tree. Around the tree was a large group of eagles. There were about ten or twelve birds. And at the top of the tree was a beautiful female eagle. She had the same colors as the eagle I had. I figured biology must take over at this point.
I said to the eagle, “Look up there! Don’t you see that beautiful lady eagle? Doesn’t she look like the type of eagle you want to make eggs with? Don’t you want to fly up there and introduce yourself? Maybe ask her out for cappuccino? C’mon, buddy. What do you think?”
The eagle just cocked back his head and said, “Cock-a-doodle-doo!”
I had had enough. I put the eagle back in my car and drove back to the chicken farm. The farmer was waiting for me at the door.
“How did you do?,” he asked me.
“Terrible. Nothing I did got that eagle to stop being a chicken. I took him up to a bluff in the mountains, thinking he would take flight. But, he wouldn’t budge.”
The farmer nodded.
“Then, I took him to a meadow where there was plenty of field mice. It was practically an eagle smorgasbord. But, he wanted to dig for seeds instead.”
Again, the farmer nodded.
“Then, I took him to a flock of other eagles like him. I introduced him to the Playboy Playmate of eagles. But all he did was crow like a rooster.”
The farmer again nodded. Then, he said, “You see, sir. That’s what I was trying to tell you. I’ve been trying for years to get that eagle to stop being a chicken. I tried all of the same things you did and more. I took him to an eagle psychologist. I bought him subliminal eagle motivation tapes. I even shouted at him and threatened to leave him up in the mountains. Nothing I did worked. So, I decided I would just let him be a chicken until he decides to change.”
I replied, “But what if never decides to change? What if he stays a chicken all his life?”
“Well, it would be sad,” the farmer said. “It would a waste of his life. But, if that’s what he wants to be, there’s nothing I can do about it.”
I came away disappointed, but I learned two valuable lessons:
- I learned that you can’t force a person to change. It doesn’t matter whether you want that person to change. It doesn’t matter if you need that person to change. A person will not change until he or she is ready to change.
- If you want to make a change in your life, you have to motivate yourself. Don’t look to others to force you to change.
For further thoughts about this speech, read my blog post, “The Eagle in the Chicken Coop Revisited.“