There is an ancient story about a king who once ordered his minister in the middle of the night to fill up the royal swimming pool with milk so that he could swim in it in the morning. The minister was in a quandary on how to fulfill the king’s desire. It would take a long time to milk the cows to get such a large quantity. One of his courtiers suggested that if each person in the city could bring one cup of milk, then it is possible to fill the swimming pool. The minister liked the idea and immediately sent out messengers to all parts of the city with the order that everyone has to bring a cup of milk right away and pour it into the royal swimming pool.
Now there was this one person who heard the king’s order and thought to himself, “Everyone is going to bring milk. What if I take a cup of water? One cup of water will not make any difference in the large tank full of milk. And in the night, no one will notice what I am pouring in the tank”. So that’s what he did. He joined the queue of people who had come with their cups of milk and when his turn came, quickly emptied his cup of water into the tank. The next morning, as the sun rose, the minister was terribly shocked to see that there was only water in the swimming pool and no milk.
There are many things that can be learned from this story.
It is apparent that everyone put in a cup of water in to the pool instead of a cup of milk. The reason why everyone did it is not clear because only one person’s thought is expressed. And it is not sure that everyone thought the same. It is possible that some did not have a cup of milk at home and therefore had to bring water because it was compulsory.
However, the crux of the story revolves around the thought that “No one will notice my lack of contribution because everyone is going to contribute”. And it is true that when all contribute to a task, then one person’s lack of contribution usually goes unnoticed. Take for example, in the game of Tug of War, if one person does not pull to his maximum strength or simply pretends to pull, then whether the team wins or loses, this act will go unnoticed. No one will be able to figure out who did not put his full effort into it.
Similarly in a team project, one person can become a “free rider” – someone who rides on the success brought about by others. A free rider is a person who enjoys a benefit accruing from a collective effort, but contributes little or nothing to the effort. It is sometimes difficult to identify such free riders in a large team because they pretend to contribute yet do nothing in reality.
The real problem happens when many people start becoming free riders because then it starts to affect the results, as in the case of the people who brought water instead of the milk. In the story, even if one or ten people had genuinely brought milk, that would go unnoticed in the whole pool of water. And it would seem that no one brought any milk.
Think from the perspective of the minister. When he sees the pool full of water, he would blow his top and would want to punish all those culprits who put water but that would mean punishing the whole city, which is practically impossible. Let’s assume he was a really evil minister. He would order the flogging of every individual in the city. This would mean even those who brought milk would face the punishment because they would have no way to prove their honesty.
With all this explanation, it is easy to draw parallels between the story and what we see in life around us. Just think of milk as taxes and you will be able to understand a lot. Think of people who evade taxes. Think of people who violate traffic rules. Think of why initiatives like Swacch Bharat do not become successful. If everyone contributed to making Bharat swacch, there would be no Swacch Bharat cess. Many other social evils like corruption can be understood from this angle.
Jesus spoke of being a good Samaritan 2000 years ago and yet we easily convince ourselves to let others be the good Samaritans while we go about our jobs. The story of somebody, anybody, everybody and nobody is important in this context.
Now there are two more important learnings in this story which are not so obvious. The first is that the whole activity happens anonymously. If the minister had checked each person’s cup before it was poured into the pool, he would have realized what is happening. There is a Hindi proverb – Doodh ka dooth aur pani ka pani ho jata – which is apt for this story.
Wherever there is anonymity, there is a scope for free riders.
Therefore, it is important to bring transparency in transactions. Not only in transactions but also in our own mind and thoughts. Awareness of one’s own thoughts can prevent us from doing wrong and acting in an inappropriate manner. Only when we believe no one is observing us, then we can think of doing wrong or not doing what is asked for.
The other important learning is from the perspective of the king. If the king makes unreasonable requests in the middle of the night, then he has no right to expect the results he wants. Supposing the request was genuine. For example, if the milk was needed for feeding poor children and there was visibility of that activity, many people in the city would have genuinely brought milk for them. However, I guess from this story that the king routinely announced such unreasonable orders to serve his personal luxury and therefore the people, having known this from past experience, acted in the fashion they did, thinking the king did not deserve their honesty. So as a leader, one must learn to make reasonable demands on one’s team in order to expect their full cooperation.
The most sticky situation is that of the minister (manager?). On the one hand, the king is going to be angry on him for not getting the job done and on the other hand, he cannot do anything to correct the situation.
So the question is – who is truly responsible?