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Bring Me A Rock

January 3, 2014

A parable about business. . .eventually.

As part of preparing to become a man, a young brave was told he must go to see the oldest man in the village. A man considered very wise.

He will tell you what you need to do to finally become a man and a full member of our tribe. When you complete his task he will give you an eagle feather as a symbol of learning.

As the sun was kissing the day goodby, the young man went to see the Elder. The inside of his lodge was dark, lit only by the faint glow of coals in the fire pit. The young man strained to make out the interior, but saw no one. Thinking he should seek the Elder elsewhere in the village, he turned to leave.

What do you seek?

The voice was barely a whisper. It came from the farthest corner of the lodge and the youth could now barely make out the image of the old man seated on a thick bear skin.

I’ve completed all the other preparations. I have only to perform the task you assign me and I will have earned my final eagle feather.

You are ready, then?

In the boldness of youth he answered,

Yes. I am ready.

Bring me a rock.

Not sure the he had heard correctly, the young man started to ask again when he noticed the old man’s head had fallen to his chest and he was asleep.

A rock? That seemed a simple enough task. The young man left the lodge excited that on the morrow, he would present the Elder with a rock and finally receive the coveted final eagle feather. He barely slept that night so great was his excitement. When the first hint of light touched the eastern hills, he was up and out of his parents’ lodge.

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He hurried toward the lodge of the village elder. Almost too late he remembered his task. Stopping at a fire ring he quickly scooped up one of the rocks that made up the ring. It was about the size of his fist, smooth all around with some blackening on the side that had faced the flames. Entering the lodge he looked to the corner. The elder’s position hadn’t changed. The young man could see his eyes twinkle in the ever present coals of the fire.

Have you completed your task?

I have. Here is your rock.

The young man placed the fire rock just on the edge of the bearskin.

That is not the rock I want.

Wha. . .

But, the Elder seemed to have fallen back asleep. The youth hefted the rock he had so casually gathered. It really was quite an ordinary rock. Obviously, the task was to find a rock worthy of becoming a man. The young man felt slightly embarrassed that he had so lightly esteemed the task. He wouldn’t fail again. He placed the rock with other similar rocks surrounding the glowing coals and quickly left the lodge.

Where to find a suitable rock? A rock worthy of a man? As he pondered these questions, he eyes were drawn to a high mountain, its snow covered peak lit brilliantly by the rising sun.

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It was the highest mountain for miles around. Its sides were steep and covered with . . .rocks! Instantly he knew what rock he needed. Stopping at his parents’ lodge to gather hunting tools and a little dried meat, he set out.

The mountain loomed ever larger as his pace rapidly ate up the miles to its base. The first night he ate half of his dried meat and slept at the base of the mountain. He was up with the dawn and attacked it’s jagged slopes and steep cliffs. He scrambled over rocks by the thousands. But, he remembered the lesson of the fire rock. He wouldn’t settle for anything except the very best. It was late in the afternoon when he finally ascended the highest point on the mountain. The cold made his fingers numb. His hands were raw and bleeding from the climb. His legs were scratched and aching from the ascent. Looking around he quickly found exactly the rock he needed, sitting on the snow as if placed there specifically for him to find. It was perfect. About the same size as the fire rock, but where the fire rock was smooth, the mountain rock was sharp and jagged. It represented the mountain itself. It truly was a rock befitting his passage into manhood.

He camped that night near his previous camp and ate the last of his dried meat. Again he was up with the dawn and on the trail to his village. He had nothing to properly carry the rock in. He alternated it, first in his left hand and then in his right. His fingers cramped and the jagged edges dug into his palms despite the callouses on his hands. Arriving at the village at supper time, proudly he walked through the village to the lodge of the Elder. While he said nothing, he made sure that everyone could see the rock he carried in his right hand. Entering the dim lodge of the Elder he triumphantly laid the rock on the edge of the bearskin. He spoke no words since none were necessary.

That is not the rock I want.

How could this be? Wasn’t this rock worthy? Wasn’t it from the highest point of the highest mountain? The young man hung his head and exited the lodge. What did he expect? How could he have rejected this rock? The entire mountain was made from the exact same stuff. And then the young man understood. While not as common as the fire rock, the mountain rock was still common. There was nothing noteworthy about it other than the location he had gone to get it from. He must find the unique rock. The rock that was unlike any other rock just as he was unlike any other man in the village.

He returned to his parents’ lodge to sleep. Up with the first hint of the sun again, he gathered his bow, and put together a pack with food enough for a week. He now understood that the lesson of the rock was one of discovery. He would range far beyond the tribe’s normal hunting grounds until he found a truly worthy and unique rock. The young man left the village without a backward glance.

Days went by. A week and then a second week. At the end of three weeks the young man returned to the village. Unlike his previous entry, this time he didn’t attempt to display his prize. As he reached the lodge of the Elder and went inside, he opened his game bag and took out a small bundle wrapped in deerskin. Carefully he peeled back the pieces of leather to finally reveal the result of his quest. Even the dim glow from the coals caught in the translucent green gem. Slightly smaller than the tip of his little finger, the green gem caught and cast back the red gleam from the fire pit. Almost reverently the young man laid the precious stone at the feet of the Elder. The fur from the bearskin seemed to grip it and hold it. The young man waited for the Elder to speak. The seconds drug on to minutes. Perhaps he had fallen asleep. Just as the young man was about to wake him, the old man spoke.

That is not the rock I want.

He was crushed. What more could he do? His fire rock had been rejected for the ease of aquisition. His mountain rock had been rejected for its commonness. And now this precious rock was also rejected. In despair the young man dropped to a seating position on the floor in front of the Elder. He was beaten. How could he ever hope to become a man if he couldn’t fulfill a task as simple as getting a rock? In desperation he hung his head and whispered,

Tell me what rock you want and I will go and fetch it for you.

And with that the old man laid an eagle feather in the young man’s lap.

I first heard this story while working at a large non-profit. The CIO made all new employees read a version of the story similar to the one I’ve retold here. I went looking for that story online and realized that while “Bring Me A Rock” is a fairly common parable, the version I had read wasn’t online.

We often think we know what our customers, or our boss or our spouse, or out children want. They want a rock. The most important part of fulfilling the request to “Bring Me A Rock” is not getting the rock. It’s understanding that “Bring Me A Rock” is an incomplete request. And while we might think we know what rock the boss wants, chances are we don’t. And often the boss doesn’t. It’s the job of the Program Manager, or engineer, or Marketing Director to find out what kind of rock the boss wants. And if he doesn’t know, don’t leave his lodge until he does, or don’t agree to fetch rocks.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children.

Follow him on
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or email him at rbliss at msn dot com

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2 Comments
  1. Kit permalink

    Interestingly enough i just finished reading “A Message to Garcia”, which seems to have almost the exact opposite message, at least on the surface. But I think this story fixes one of the problems I had with that classic story – namely, that there is a need to ensure the request/order is properly understood before running off to “accomplish something”.

    • “Bring me a rock” typically is used as a way to describe managers who give broad directions, but then don’t provide details. I chose to emphasize the fact that it’s our responsibility to ask for clarification and make sure we understand the requirements before we start. As a manager, I never gave intentionally vague requests, but, that didn’t mean my employees understood the request the same way i did.

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