Don’t Count Your Chickens Before They Hatch

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, Ph.D.

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

In my office is an evocative black and white aerial photo of my grandfather’s chicken farm, circa 1960. Grandpa and Dad ran the farm, along with a revolving assortment of hired help. The farm accommodated 15,000 hens. Four buildings housed “layers,” with eggs being the farm’s principle product. Each building was staged, with the hens’ age being staggered by four months. When egg production for a building would taper off, those hens would be sold, ending up in cans of condensed chicken-noodle soup. (The ratio of cans per chicken intrigues me to this day.) The fifth building was the “pullet” house; think of it as the nursery.

Every four months, the hens from the oldest building would be sent to market, the vacated coop cleaned, disinfected, and refurbished, and the maturing chicks from the pullet house would move in. Then the pullet house would be similarly prepped. It was exciting for me when the hatchlings were delivered. They would arrive unassumingly, transported in cardboard cartons, with 100 per, and delivered via station wagon. The shrill cacophony of their combined chirping was surely deafening to the driver; even in the open space of their new abode, their peeping was audibly overwhelming. I took great joy in my small role of liberator, watching their cute, yellow, fluffy bodies scurry in all directions from a gently upturned box.

As a preschooler, I would sometimes get to go with Dad to gather eggs; it was great fun – for the first 10 minutes. I quickly learned to avoid nests with hens in them; they would peck the back of your hand. Even the jersey gloves with cut-off fingers that Dad wore seemed to be inadequate protection. I resorted to gathering eggs from empty nests located in the lower rows that I could reach. On one occasion, I needed to rest and sat on a little stool. Only it wasn’t a stool; it was a basket of eggs. I broke half of them before I could extricate myself. I was mortified. Dad patiently cleaned me off, and I think Grandpa laughed.

Unfortunately, due to health issues for Dad and Grandpa’s desire to retire, the farm was shut down and the hens sold. The next day, as I took my usual shortcut to school though the back of the farm, I spotted a wayward hen who had escaped the deportation.   “Can I keep it?” I plied Mom and Dad. Dad couldn’t say no, garnering me a private supply of eggs.

My hen produced an egg every 27 hours. (The exact laying cycle varies with breed, age, diet, environment, and season.)  This was a bit short of my hope for an egg a day, so I considered a second hen. That would be more eggs than I needed, so I would share with my family. Why stop at two, my young mind reasoned. Six hens would produce enough for everyone, with some left over. A dozen hens would mean eggs to sell. How far could it grow? Soon my naive entrepreneurialism envisioned me helping feed and support my family.

I’m not sure if I shared this vision with Dad, but when I asked for a second hen, it was granted. Dad picked a strong, robust hen; she was a fine specimen, and I was ecstatic. Unfortunately, my two hens didn’t get along, with the new one dominating and then attacking the original. Even with a larger pen, the abuse continued, production dropped, and soon my cherished pet was dead, killed by her associate and ostensibly by my desire for more.

But this isn’t a story about chickens; it’s really about people. It’s not a commentary on greed or a rant against capitalism, but rather a call for balance and pragmatism.

Bigger is Not Always Better: Sometimes less is more; enough said.

Increased Scope Produces Increased Challenges: I was a successful farmer of one chicken. I wrongly assumed that if I could raise one, two would not be a problem. After all, it’s a scalable concept. I never dreamed that I would have “labor” issues to deal with – it never came up in a one chicken operation!

All too often, call centers expand their operation without considering the ramifications. They forget that a bigger operation will require more support and add new, yet unforeseen challenges. This often occurs when a successful, one location, operation opens up a second center. Suddenly neither location is doing well. It might be they have the wrong management style, maybe leadership became distracted, or perhaps the requisite infrastructure was lacking.

Value What You Have: I took my hen for granted. When a better one came along, I jumped at the opportunity. I’ve done the same with employees; maybe you have too. You have people whose work may not be stellar, but who have been steady, faithful, and dependable for years. Then a bright-eyed, eager-to-please applicant arrives and the next thing you know, the new employee has chased away the proven one. It’s only then you realize that the newer model wasn’t the solution you thought, but it’s too late; you messed things up by longing for something better.

Be Content: We live in a society that is seldom satiated and always lusts for more. It’s not bad to have dreams and set goals; in fact, it is good to do so and detrimental to lack aspirations. However, when the push for more becomes the focus, the best parts of life begin to become obscure, going unnoticed and becoming unrealized.

The first step is to truly distinguish between needs and wants. So many things that we think we need are, in reality, not necessary and merely a nice extra. In the big picture, how important is a larger house, a newer car, a grander vacation, and more “toys?” Will they bring joy and satisfaction or just make you more tired as a result of the added pressures ownership brings?

Ask yourself, “When was the last time that I actually wore out an article of clothing, as opposed to merely getting bored with it or it becoming too tight?” This is starting to get at the crux of the issue. Being content with what we have is a good place to strive for; learning to be content with less is even better – and still leaves us ahead of the majority of people on the planet.

Don’t get so busy counting your chickens before they hatch that you miss out on what you already have.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time.

[From the October/November 2007 issue of AnswerStat magazine]