Productivity Tips from Alex the Parrot

I just finished reading Irene Pepperberg’s wonderful book Alex & Me, about her work and relationship with Alex, the African Grey parrot who became internationally renowned for his cognitive and communications skills, including being able to hold simple conversations, spell simple words, and do simple math.

alexandmeTurns out he could procrastinate, too. One problem Pepperberg had with Alex and the other parrots she worked with was that they got bored during the repetitive testing needed to gather data. When Alex didn’t want to participate, she notes, he often would, “indulge in some suddenly urgent preening.”

That’s procrastination mimicking productive work, in case you didn’t recognize it! It’s no different than someone who decides to do “some suddenly urgent” laundry or lawn-mowing instead of his or her writing or other work.

Alex apparently also mastered at least two key time management techniques. The first was saying no to unwanted work. Here is an example from the book:

K (one of Alex’s testers): Alex, what’s this [holding a four-corner wood]?
A: No!

K: Yes, what is this?
A: Four-corner wood [indistinct]

K: Four, say better.
A: No.

K: Yes!
A: Three…paper.

K: Alex, “four,” say “four.”
A: No!

K: Come on!
A: No!

Saying no might seem like a small thing, but plenty of people struggle with it. Pepperberg notes that Alex, “became even more creative in this respect as he grew older,” one example being, “He’d turn around and lift his butt in my direction, a gesture too obvious to need translation.”

Alex also rocked delegation:

  • “Once Alex had learned to label objects and request things, he relished the control it gave him over his environment…The students used to joke that they were “Alex’s slaves,” because he would have them running around, attending to his constant demands. He was merciless with new students. He would run through his entire repertoire of labels and requests: “…want nut…wanna go shoulder…wanna go gym,” and on and on.”

Which brings us to a couple of fundamental productivity ideas:

(1) Productivity and creativity are fundamentally acts of empowerment, self-assertion, and self-advocacy. The challenge is to locate and use your personal power, including, especially, your voice. Alex, whom Pepperberg at one point refers to as a “feathered Napoleon,” was clearly able to do that!

(2) To boost your productivity / creativity / personal power, focus on improving your environment, not yourself. Pepperberg stresses that, bright as he was, Alex was no prodigy, but just an ordinary parrot whose talents she encouraged by providing the conditions he needed for success. “For the first fifteen years of his life, he was an ‘only’ bird. He had a small army of students who responded to all his vocalizations, who interacted with him eight to ten hours a day.”

You can create the conditions that encourage your own success! My book The 7 Secrets of the Prolific tells you how. Read excerpts here.

Alex & Me is a quick, moving read, and I highly recommend it. Along with Alex’s story, it also tells the inspiring story of how Pepperberg—a woman of unusual vision and courage—persisted with her groundbreaking research in the face of many professional and personal obstacles.

alexYou may already know the sad end of the story: Alex died suddenly and unexpectedly in 2007, at age 31, which is quite young for parrots. (The book begins with this event, so I’m not spoiling it.) Alex’s death was a tragedy not just for him and Pepperberg and their colleagues, but his many fans and admirers throughout the world; and also, obviously, for science.

Does it feel weird, looking to a bird for productivity tips? It shouldn’t! For one thing, Alex left a legacy any of us might admire. For another, productive people are open to, and grateful for, mentoring from any source. (In classes, many students remark on the valuable things they’ve learned from their dogs, cats, and other animal companions; and Alex himself, of course, was receptive to mentoring from humans.) Humans suffer and lose wisdom when we set ourselves apart from other species, perfectionism—fundamentally an inability to discern and accept natural limits and boundaries—being just one example.

Alex appears to have known when it was time to stop and smell–and, in some cases, eat!–the flowers. I hope you do some of that, too, this summer.

Read about Dr. Pepperberg’s continuing work on animal cognition and communication here.

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