Never Try to Teach A Pig to Sing

Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and it annoys the pig.

I’ve found attributions for this to Mark Twain and Robert Heinlein (more for Heinlein), and I first heard it said by W.C. Fields. I’m not going to dig deep for the source today, just use the quote, and if a reader has more information, I’m happy to learn.

I was tickled when I first heard this statement, as there is both truth and absurdity involved here. And yet, I’ve noticed that when people are frantic and driven by a desperate need for relief or solution, its not uncommon to view teaching a pig to sing as a reasonable approach. Reasonable is the tell-tale word here. Its not reasonable, and when one is frantic, one has less access to one’s reason.

Neuroscience supports this. When the survival (or reptilian) brain is activated, in the face of actual or felt sense of threat, there is an increase in circulation to that part of the brain and a corresponding decrease in circulation to the prefrontal cortex, the seat of memory, learned information and logic. In other words, if your brain is scared or perceiving threat, you literally have less access to your thinking mind. We’ve all had some experience of this, intending in advance to respond differently to a “next time”–in the face of anger or other undesired situation and then doing the same thing we don’t intend to do.

Frantic, by its nature, tells us that our internal emergency response system is activated. The urge is to do more, and faster. Occasionally that’s appropriate. Much more often, what’s helpful is to slow down, take a few deep breaths and slowly exhale them. Notice your body, feel your feet on the ground, your seat in the chair. These body actions provide feedback to your survival brain that reduces the emergency–it might move things down a point or two on the emergency scale, Defcon 5 to 3.5 makes a difference. With a reduction in the emergency comes increased access to your thinking brain. Its much easier to actually assess a situation and make healthier choices from this place.

This is part of the reason behind fire drills and other emergency preparations. If these activities are practiced, then the alert in one’s system is likely to be less. That said, too much emphasis on preparedness can also be triggering, causing everything to appear a threat. I’ve noticed that the media relies on this, keeping viewers by inflammatory and activating headlines. “If it bleeds, it leads”. Marketers and politicians know this too, using these tactics to keep people off balance and believing that teaching pigs to sing is a good use of their time and energy.

If you’re feeling frantic, slow down. Its almost always less of a crisis than it feels like. Take those breaths, feel your body, then check back in on the situation. Its amazing how many pigs clamoring for singing lessons can be blown away with a slow exhale. Like a fire drill, practice this early and often, it gets easier with time, and being able to do it during a crisis will become nearly automatic. I’m happier when I’m not teaching pigs to sing, and also when I’m not following that other directive: When in trouble, when in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout.



20 thoughts on “Never Try to Teach A Pig to Sing

      1. I never saw a living rattlesnake until I moved to CA. I think when you are around them often and you get to “know” them and where they’ll be, it’s different. I don’t feel all that comfortable here. I’d far rather hike in winter or early spring.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. They are definitely around here, particularly in the foothills, and I’ve not seen one in the wild, which is fine with me. I sat next to one in biology class at Boulder High. No problem then. Its the surprise factor that’s hardest, along with having to deal with a bite. As a kid, there were a lot unearthed during the construction of Table Mesa. so every time I walked through the weeds and heard whirring of grasshoppers, it was hard not to alert.

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      3. Oh yes, rattlesnakes like the foothills. They’re very common around here in the rocky areas of the foothills, too. I just use a stick and keep my eyes open, but yeah. Strangely, there are no ratttlesnakes in the Great Sand Dunes.

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  1. ack, the phone. Back on the computer. I have a little less equanimity around rattlesnakes thus far. Avoidance is best, although as you know, they’re around. So far so good.


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