The Calf Path

There are people you encounter in your career, who doggedly resist change or follow the mantra; ‘we’ve always done it that way.’  It is right to question proposed changes and weigh risks. It is also a good idea to ask whether hubris, laziness and complacency is behind the resistance. The following is a poem about blind devotion to a well trodden path. It reminds me of a colleague who is no longer with us called Rob, who never followed The Calf Path of the mind, even when begged to stick with the tried and tested.   Every business needs a ‘Rob’. He left us all too early and is remembered by everyone who ever worked with him.  And he loved this poem.    

One day through the primeval wood

A calf walked home, as good calves should;

But left a trail all bent askew,

A crooked trail as all calves do.

Since then, three hundred years have fled,

And, I infer, the calf is dead.

But still he left behind his trail,

and thereby hangs my moral tale.


The trail was taken up next day

By a lone dog that passed that way.

And then a wise bell-whether sheep

Pursued the trail o’er vale and steep,

And drew the flock behind him, too,

As good bell-whethers always do.

And from the day, o’er hill and glade,

Through those old woods a path was made,


And many men wound in and out,

And bent and turned and dodged about,

And uttered words of righteous wrath,

Because ‘twas such a crooked path.

But still they followed – do not laugh

The first migrations of that calf,

And through the winding wood-way stalked

Because he wobbled when he walked.


This forest path became a lane,

That bent and turned and turned again.

This crooked lane became a road,

Where many a poor horse, with his load,

Toiled on, beneath the burning sun,

And travelled some three miles in one.

And thus a century and a half

They trod the footsteps of that calf.


The years passed on in swiftness fleet,

The road became a village street

And this, before men were aware,

A city’s crowded thoroughfare.

And soon the central street was this

Of a renowned Metropolis.

And men two centuries and a half

Trod the footsteps of that calf


Each day a hundred thousand rout

Followed the zigzag calf about;

And o’er his crooked journey went

The traffic of a continent.

A hundred thousand men were led

By one calf near three centuries dead.

They followed still his crooked way,

And lost one hundred years a day.


For thus such reverence is lent

To well-established precedent.

A moral lesson this might teach

Were I ordained and called to preach

For men are prone to go it blind

Along the calf path of the mind,

And toil away from sun to sun

To do what other men have done


They follow in the beaten track,

And out and in and forth and back

And still their devious course pursue

To the keep the path that others do.

But how the wise old wood-gods laugh,

Who saw the first primeval calf!

Ah! Many things this tale might teach;

But I am not ordained to preach.


Sam Walter Foss (1858 – 1911)


5 thoughts on “The Calf Path”

  1. So cool to read this again & a real reminder that habitual behaviour and “we’ve always done it this way” mentality is not a friend of efficiency.

  2. I wonder how you find out if the way it has been done for years is a result of a lot of random experiences, as described, or in fact it has derived from multiple correction of a host of mistakes and therefore the result of very wise learning. I know what it is like to work on projects which have “thrown off the shackles of convention to do things never thought possible” – sometimes you have the right people with the right attitude and it works, other times it is purgatory.

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