Tadpole Negentropy: Finding a Book in Chaos
Written by
Kristin Hackler
July 2019
Written by
Kristin Hackler
July 2019

cover image: By VxD - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5

The box made a "thud" so loud I heard it through my headphones from across the house, followed immediately by a hard, brief slam on the doorbell.

Reminder number 237 that I need to tip my postperson this holiday season.

Slippers slapping, I rushed to the front door, hoping it was another delivery of used books I half-remember ordering, only to find a large white banker's box resting on the stoop. The return address was from a new client I'd spoken to only a few days ago. 

Strange, I wasn't expecting anything from them.

I reached down to pick it up and almost wrenched my back out on the lift. What was this filled with, bricks? After a couple more odd angle attempts, my slippers abandoned for the traction of bare feet, I opted for half dragging the box across the floor to the dining room table where I began expertly hacking at the packing tape with a butter knife.

They weren't bricks, but the weight and shape weren't far off. It was marketing material - about 65 pounds worth, according to the shipping label. Cardboard stock, printouts of powerpoint presentations, dense spiral-bound portfolios, and at the top of it all, a neatly folded envelope.

"Here's the material. There's at least one book in here, if not more. Looking forward to seeing what you put together."

Holy crud.

A followup call with the client's consultant confirmed what I was thinking - he was certain that everything I needed was in that box and, because of his limited availability, he didn't have time to speak again until we had a plan of attack. His consultant was rather firm on this: if I couldn't come up with a cohesive, detailed book outline based on the hour-long call I'd had with the client last week and the overflowing box of brightly colored collateral, I'd lose the contract. 

Now, I'm not one to turn down a good challenge, but staring at the massive pile of paperwork, I started to get the sinking feeling that this was simply beyond my capabilities.

But that didn't mean I wasn't going to give it a try.

A Chance Comment

The revelation didn't come until somewhere around the second day, tenth hour of reading and sorting. I was holding up two tri-folds like puzzle pieces, desperately trying to figure out how they connected or even if they did at all, when a random comment the client made drifted into my thoughts.

It was a brief aside while we were talking about his book. He'd just come back from a summer vacation where he, his wife, and their two young boys stayed in a cabin in the lower Appalachian mountains. They'd completely disconnected, spending their time going on hikes, swimming in a mountain lake, and generally just enjoying nature for two weeks without a phone or computer in sight.

It was on one of those hikes that the client recalled stopping with his boys by a still pond in a dense lowland forest. Peering at the edge of the tea-brown water, one of the boys suddenly shouted "tadpoles!" Not just a handful, either, but what looked like hundreds or even thousands, many of them in different stages of development. Instantly, the boys started bombarding their dad with questions, running up and down the edge of the pond and occasionally stopping and squatting so low that their noses practically touched the surface, trying to spot which tadpoles had legs, which ones had arms, and which ones were already tiny frogs.

In the brief moments between questions, my client tried to explain the frog's lifecycle to them as simply as possible - how they grew from egg to tadpole to having legs and eventually moving on to land. Then they asked the inevitable.


"And you know, I don't think I'd ever really thought about it until just then," my client said. "Why do tadpoles develop the way they do? Why aren't they content to just stay in the water? How do they even know that there's something more than living in water? And it occurred to me that this development - of progressing from the world that they're perfectly adapted to living in and 'leapfrogging' into a completely foreign environment - that's what we help our clients do. The moment they start 'growing legs' and realizing there's more to the world than water, we teach them how to survive and ideally, how to thrive."

That was it. While I was busy overcomplicating everything with tree charts and technical details, the whole, blessedly simple book was in front of me the entire time. 

From that point on the book outline flowed. I broke their process into four distinct stages - egg, tadpole, legs and arms, frog - and used the collateral to bullet-point out how his company helped their clients recognize each stage and develop within it, taking advantage of the stage while concurrently preparing for the next. 

Even with the amphibian assist, it still took almost two weeks to go through the material and build out the outline. But when it was done, the client was appreciably impressed. We still had a lot of tweaking to do, but the concept was, as he put it, "ribbeting."


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