What if your Sacred Cows were just Pigs on Stilts?

Detail of a marginal painting of a female pig on stilts, wearing a conical hat, from f. 19v of Chroniques, Vol. IV, part 1 (the ‘Harley Froissart’) | Source: (British Library) | Public Domain

Beliefs and convictions — ‘Sacred Cows’ — can be misconceived, inaccurate or become outdated, making them more like ‘Pigs on Stilts’. Why do we even need beliefs? What effect does it have when they’re wrong? How can we recognize that and what can we do about it?

Why I started thinking about this

Have you ever been stuck on achieving a goal for months, years, maybe even decades? I have. For me the worst example is my weight: I’ve been borderline overweight/obese (current BMI = 30) for decades. I won’t let go of the desire to shed body fat because I want to look better with my shirt off and yet I routinely over-eat.

“Problems that remain persistently insoluble should always be suspected as questions asked in the wrong way.”
― Alan Watts, The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are

This quote has been in my head for a while now because it feels closely related to consistently missing a goal whilst not being able to let go of it. A goal isn’t a question but how to achieve it is. In my case the question of which diet should I choose turns out not just to be one I was asking the wrong way but also irrelevant because I’ve lost weight on almost any diet I’ve tried.

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”
― Rita Mae Brown, novelist, from her 1983 book ‘Sudden Death’

This one — often incorrectly attributed to Einstein — definitely applies too. After such a long time getting nowhere, it’s got to be time to let go of something — either the goal itself or your notion of how you’re going to achieve it. It’s also important to distinguish between determination and delusion, but ‘wisdom’ like this doesn’t help, it shores up one unhelpful belief by planting another, shaming one that you are weak and need to be stronger:

“If at first you don’t succeed, try try again”
― from a 19th century by

It depends what you’re trying to accomplish, doesn’t it? Could you learn to ride a bicycle (if you don’t know how already)? — probably. Could you jump off a wall, flap your arms and fly like a bird, unaided? — not in a lifetime. These two examples offer a clear distinction but in many other areas in life it’s not so clear. Since what we think we can and can’t do and, in particular, how we might best go about doing it are largely a function of our beliefs we need to be on high alert for bogus ones.

My belief that I would lose weight by choosing and sticking to the right diet was patently bogus, and I wasted a long time feeling shame at failing and trying to try harder. Reading the Alan Watts quote started an alarm bell in my head: gently at first, but then louder and louder.

Why we need beliefs

Navigating life requires a level of constant decision-making that would paralyze us if we couldn’t make most of those decisions automatically. To help with this, throughout our lives we are laying down beliefs to act as quick test-gauges: which people and what information will we trust? What sequences of events are routinely predictable? What do we know we are capable of and vice versa?

If we were routinely re-evaluating at least some beliefs though, maybe we would get stuck less often and maybe we would miss out on fewer new opportunities. Perhaps we could also avoid disproportionate responses to innocent interactions in our adult lives by understanding that some of our beliefs arise from emotionally overwhelming and painful situations we experienced as children — when we didn’t have mature faculties for processing them. But that’s another story.

And a level of mindfulness few of us have, unfortunately.

When beliefs are wrong

I had a very practical, vivid and uncomfortable demonstration of the aphorism above back in the 1980s when I worked for a networking equipment supplier to a big industrial company.

The company’s production facility was in a physically hostile environment and automated so that it kept the number of people needed on site to a minimum. The computer system that managed the automated systems was too sensitive to operate in the production facility, so it was in a safer place some distance away. Two high-speed network connections linked the two places together: one live one and another completely separate one for backup.

Then one day networking equipment failed and all the network connections went down — both the live one and backup. This shouldn’t have been possible, the networking equipment should have been self-healing. No network connections meant no production. This was costing vast sums of money and attracting the undivided attention of management all the way to the top of the company. People found themselves under intense scrutiny and unable to answer important questions: why has this happened?; why is it not fixed yet?; how much longer will it take?

In the unthinkable event that something like this should in fact happen, there was a contract in place with my company stipulating that our engineers should be on site in minutes to fix the equipment. They were there on time, but they couldn’t immediately fix the problem. They had no explanation for why they couldn’t fix it either. Although the initial culprit was clearly one particular circuit board, replacing it did nothing to resolve the problem. They did exactly what they should have done to fix things, three times, with no success. Highly embarrassing and very uncomfortable.

Unknowingly armed with multiple defective spare circuit boards, the engineers found themselves on the wrong side of Occam’s Razor. They could envisage a situation where one of their spare circuit boards might have been faulty and not resuscitated the customer system they were working on. So they had tried a second spare. Then when that didn’t work either and against their own better judgement but to humour all the near-hysterical people looking over their shoulders, they tried a third. When that didn’t work, they were sure they needed to look everywhere else for ‘something they must have missed or mis-read’ before. They spent an agonizingly long time doing this. Because there was ‘no way’ that all three ‘known good’ spare boards could have been faulty.

Unfortunately, ‘yes way’ — they were all bad. Someone figured out what the problem was in the end but it took almost 48 hours and cost millions in lost production.

How can we recognize Pigs on Stilts and what can we do about it?

We can start by being prepared to let go of taking everything at face value, because in the words of the great … someone or other:

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” — Unknown —

Here’s where the Alan Watts quote comes in:

“Problems that remain persistently insoluble should always be suspected as questions asked in the wrong way.”

And here’s a very simple example of how this can apply. Think about a time when you’ve lost something important: keys, a purse, a wallet, or a file maybe. You always put that important, valuable thing down, you always put it down in a particular place, for safekeeping. Only now it’s not there. But it has to be there because that’s where you always put it. Have you ever been convinced that someone else must have moved it, only to find it somewhere you actually left it yourself, whilst distracted?

Given that the thing wasn’t where your past behaviours predicted it should be, the belief that it should be there because that’s where you always put it — without fail — is no use. The question that arises from that belief (who moved it?) is therefore no use either. A more helpful question is: exactly what was I doing the last time I had the thing and what happened next. This will usually, eventually, take you to the memory of the distraction, but you might have to force yourself to relax and close your eyes for the replay to happen for you.

So any time you find yourself feeling convinced that you must be able to get something done a certain way, only it’s not working … try and find the underlying belief and experiment with letting it go. Beware especially of convictions because they can be almost unshakeable:

Conviction is petrified belief” — Bernie Cullen 2019 —

Any time you feel you’re banging your head against a brick wall, stop and have a think before you double down. What are your assumptions? Which if any of your underlying beliefs could be wrong? Because you they might often prompt you to ask a question (direct or implicit) the wrong way if you are basing your evaluation of the situation on beliefs that are misconceived, inaccurate or outdated.

What did I do about my weight?

Thank you for asking! I took my own advice and let go of the belief that I just needed to find the right diet and the willpower to stick with it and did a couple of different things. First, it I tried to focus on what I was feeling emotionally when I over-ate and I found I was ‘stuffing’ to self-comfort. I’m still working on that. I’m not sure where the grief is coming from. I have a friend who’s a clinical hypnotherapist and we’re going to have a rummage in my head together later in the year. The second thing I did was look into Intermittent Fasting because it came up in a few places I follow on Reddit and YouTube. It made sense to me so I started a 16:8 regime 103 days ago at the time of writing and I’ve lost 13 pounds since, without any significant modifications to the way I eat. I still want to make some changes to the way I eat for health reasons, maybe that will increase the weight loss but I don’t mind if it doesn’t.

A sacred cow, as well as being an animal venerated and protected in Indian religions, is also a figure of speech for something considered immune from question or criticism.

A ‘pig on stilts’ is something which might be plausible at first sight but is in fact ungainly and precarious. The earliest source I could find was from the American TV (CBS) comedy M.A.S.H. about a combat medical unit that originally aired from 1972 to 1983. In episode 5 of Season 6, the character Colonel Potter said “This unit is running as smoothly as a pig on stilts”

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I’m relentlessly curious. I thought I’d start sharing what I find, in the hope that someone else finds these things useful — or at least just interesting.

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Simon Birkby

Simon Birkby

I’m relentlessly curious. I thought I’d start sharing what I find, in the hope that someone else finds these things useful — or at least just interesting.

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