One day, a monkey appeared in the tree outside the front door of my apartment building. He was on one of the upper branches, his body partially obscured by green leaves and pink flower buds. Only about a foot tall, he had dark brown fur and a wide toothful grin. He probably wouldn’t have been able to keep upright if it weren’t for the velcro on his hands and feet.
Even though I was late heading into work, I stopped and looked up at the monkey. He looked down at me. I smiled, then waved. (He didn’t wave back.)
While heading to the BART station, I thought about the monkey. I wondered if he’d be gone by the time I’d returned home. However, this wasn’t the case. For the past three years, the monkey has continued to greet me as I walk out the door.
But the monkey isn’t always in the same place. He’s chosen to express himself. Or, to put it another way: every few days, someone puts his body into a different position at a new location still visible from the front door. I’m impressed at how rarely the monkey seems to repeat himself. His poses continue to be inventive, almost like a yoga instruction manual. One week, he hung upside down from his toes while waving with one hand. Another week, he was in a lotus position. Or speaking no evil. Or holding a hand up to his chin as if to say What’re you looking at?
Every so often, I wonder about who is behind this monkey’s antics. If I were the owner of this monkey, I would probably sneak out on early Sunday morning and improvise a solution for where the animal should go next. After all, we’re all asleep at that time, and would have a chance to appreciate the new pose while doing chores or heading out to the car.
But one night, over dinner, I asked my wife what she knew about the monkey.
“The Lucky Monkey?” she said.
“Wait a minute. The monkey has a name?” I said.
“Yeah. I don’t know who came up with it, but that’s what we all call him.”
“So where’s the monkey from? Who put him out there?”
”Nobody knows. I just move him around every so often.”
This was news to me.
“All of us do.” she said. “I know Ronald moves him. And Iris. I think most people in the apartment building do. Except that one kid upstairs. I asked him if he was going to move it and he said it’s too gross from all those years sitting out there.”
I sat there, processing the news. Then I turned to look out the living room window. Through the blinds, I saw that the monkey was clinging to one of the pillars in the vestibule.
“The monkey isn’t in the tree.” I said. “Weren’t we supposed to keep him there?”
“Well, it has been raining a lot,” Mary said.
It’s what we make of the little things in life that adds up into big misunderstandings. And it usually starts with assumptions.
Assumptions are things that we believe to be true without explicit proof. Just getting up in the morning and making some basic decisions requires them. Otherwise, every situation that we’re in would require immense effort. Take an example from today: It hasn’t rained in the past week. I look up at the sky this morning. There are a few white clouds, but the sky is mostly blue and clear. I assume it isn’t going to rain while I am out walking the dog, and act accordingly. Without having some basic assumptions like these in our consciousness from moment to moment, life would be paralyzing.
Sometimes assumptions are openly discussed, debated, and tested with other people. But usually this isn’t the case. It isn’t always efficient for us to share our individual assumptions with other people, let alone debate them. Usually what happens is that a group of people or community have implicit assumptions, which are surfaced when situations makes them visible. The latter can often be a surprise for everyone, because they haven’t put those assumptions into words until that very moment in time.
Which brings me to the Lucky Monkey. I had thought that one of my neighbors had put the monkey in the tree. That this person had a reason why they’d done it, and they moved the monkey around with a few set rules in mind: Fresh poses, visible from the door, and so forth. I’d formed all these assumptions about the monkey without once questioning them over three years.
But after that five-minute conversation with Mary, I knew that my view of the world wasn’t true. I had crossed the line from a couple of assumptions about the monkey to creating a wholly believable, yet false view of the situation. And I’d believed this for years, without once asking a basic question about the situation.
Yes, I realize that I am making a big deal about a stuffed animal in a tree outside my front window. But sometimes the smallest of situations can contain a grain of truth about human nature. We can be impossibly complex beings, but the ability to voice and reason out our assumptions and beliefs should not be so. It gnaws at me how easy it is to slide from holding a set of assumptions loosely in your hand, to implicitly believing that the world works in a specific way. Over time, we can take a false comfort in that certainty, even if what’s happening around you may not match the picture you’ve ascribed to it.
And then, when you’re confronted with facts—actual facts, not the “alternative” kind—you could be wrong. Very wrong. Every day, we walk a thin line between our assumptions and our beliefs. And we make so many decisions for which we have little to no factual basis. Both are being constantly tested, whether we notice it or not. We just may not be conscious of it.
With the Lucky Monkey, things started so simply, and then built up over time into something that the twenty people in our building ended up owning. No one knew who had put the monkey there. Somehow the monkey acquired a name, and the name stuck. Each person on their own had decided to go outside and move the monkey after seeing that someone else had shifted his position and pose. Whenever the monkey got moved, it was a surprise to almost everyone in the building. A set of rules started to form, and they were discussed amongst the tenants of our building (sans me). The tenants had taken responsibility for the monkey, named him, and taken care of him for years. And along the way, no one decided to take the monkey into their home after running him through the clothes washer and dryer.
But it was a hidden assumption that he was supposed to stay in the tree, except for this last person who decided to move him. Maybe it happened because we’d been in the midst of a long season of rain storms, and he had become excessively limp and bedraggled. But only one person will ever know why, unless we get together and talk about it. Which, my wife informs me, we don’t. The Lucky Monkey gets mentioned every few weeks, in passing, as we take out the trash or do our laundry. There are no building meetings or notices about him. There’s nothing official, nothing planned, just a shared set of wordless negotiations that I am now a part of.
I find that in the profession that I’ve chosen, having clarity regarding your working assumptions is part of doing your job. It’s a pre-requisite of product design to build as strong a factual picture as you can before creating anything. The fewer facts you have informing how a product gets made, the greater the risk that it’s not going to generate the outcomes you’d intended. Yet how many situations are we in where we don’t give the same due care and attention to our everyday life decisions?
So I made a decision: I would move the monkey in the tree. But the problem in that is almost like a koan: I will make an individual decision that impacts my community, but the thing that I’m deciding about doesn’t appear to have an individual component because the community has no explicitly held rules about it. There’s no shared schedule for moving the monkey. Everyone seems to have their own motivations for doing so. It’s not something we all talk about.
So how can you go against these hidden assumptions, when there’s no prescribed behavior in response? This has been a problem since we came down from the trees and started our first, most basic versions of society. But at least I’m starting with my first responsibility: Being aware of and asking the question.