Taylor: Lessons learned from the lazy goose

Even geese take turns at the front of the formation. At least, biologists say that they do.

Our house sits on a hillside, high enough above the lake that sometimes I get to look down on flights of geese as they take off, heading to who knows where.

Or is that gaggles of geese?

Anyway, one of those flights or gaggles went by the other morning. They had taken that characteristic V-formation. They squawked and honked noisily as they headed north.

Wait a minute—north? In autumn, geese are supposed to head south, aren’t they?

But in this instance, the lead goose had clearly decided they were heading north. Up the lake. Perhaps to a sheltered bay with abundant aquatic vegetation. Perhaps to a field, imperfectly harvested. And the rest followed, because that’s what followers are supposed to do.

I’ve read that the V-formation is a labour-saving device. The pattern lets each goose ride the slipstream of the goose in front, saving energy.

Sure enough, as these geese passed by, I could see that the leading geese had to flap vigorously to forge ahead; the geese at the tail end were coasting. Some of them barely flapped at all; they soared on outstretched wings, surfing the wake of those who had gone before them.

The geese near the back also seemed to do most of the squawking.

Those geese reminded me of some of the human organizations I’ve belonged to.

Just the other day, I heard a minister wonder, “Why is it that the people who have the most difficulty hearing always sit at the back of the church?”

In another organization, someone cited the ‘80/20 rule’: 20 per cent of the people do 80 per cent of the work. It follows that 80 per cent do only 20 per cent of the work.

If that rule sounds cynical, consider some other truisms you may hear about human behaviour: “If you really want something done, give it to a busy person.”

And from a choir leader: “Good singers practise; the others just imitate the good ones.”

Several dictionaries defined a truism as an obvious statement that says nothing new or interesting; a cliché, a platitude.

I think that’s too simple. A truism contains some truth, often derived from anecdotal evidence, but it can never be proved, because there are always exceptions.

A truism is like the famous paradox uttered by a citizen of Crete: “All Cretans are liars.” If it’s literally true, he too must be lying. But if he’s lying, then all Cretans are not liars. But that would make his statement false, which means he’s lying again.

If we treat that statement as a truism, though, it becomes a general claim that allows exceptions.

So too all the truisms I’ve cited above. The slackers in a church congregation may be the hardest working volunteers at the food bank; the weak links in the neighbourhood watch program may be key coaches in youth soccer.

Even geese take turns at the front of the formation. At least, biologists say that they do. I don’t know enough geese personally to confirm that fact.

But somehow, I suspect that a few lazy geese never do take their turn up front. Why should they work harder than they need to? They’re only human, after all.