Margaret Mead was married to an equally renowned anthropologist, Gregory Bateson. One of my favorite Bateson stories comes from his consulting contract with a zoo. The otters were in trouble. Their physical health was fine. But these animals that loved to frolic were sitting around all day, lifeless and lethargic. Bateson was brought in to diagnose the situation and offer recommendations. He spent several days observing the sleepy otters. It seemed to him they were depressed.
So he took matters into his own hands. He took the paper on which he was prepared to write his report, hooked a long string at one end of it, and dangled the paper above the area where the otters were slumbering. Soon one of the otters noticed the paper, began playing with it, and caused it to sway in the air. This awakened the curiosity in another otter, who also started pawing it, and the two otters started competing. By now the entire otter population joined in the frolic.
When Bateson retrieved the paper, the otters kept playing. They were “cured” and never went back to their listless life.
The magic of a dangling piece of paper was not the paper but the stirring stick that shook up the otters’ environment and introduced some novelty that energized their interactions. When relationships get too comfortable and predictable, the intervention of stirring sticks is imperative if growth is to take place.
Leonard Sweet, Out of the Question… Into the Mystery, p.114