I really can’t remember where I heard this fable from (if you know its origins, can you let me know in the comments), but it has stuck with me.
Once upon a time, there was a little village. It was a lot like the other little villages in the area, except for one thing: it was just like all the other villages. Other villages had something that enabled them to stand out: one had the tallest spire in the area, another had the most amazing archway as you walked into the town square, another had an incredible fountain in the town square. This village had nothing that made it stand out. It was just like all the others.
One day the village decided to do something about this, but they were unsure exactly what to do so they gathered for a village meeting. A number of ideas were put forward about building this or that, most of which were too expensive or too difficult.
“What about the fountain?” one enterprising young man asked. Like all the other villages, there was a fountain in the middle of the town square.
“Oh the town to the south has a great fountain, we could never build anything like that!” was the reply from the floor, with mumbles of agreement from within the crowd.
“No, but what if we filled ours with lemonade? We would be the first to have a lemonade fountain in our village!” the young man continued.
“Lemonade?!! That would take liters and liters. No-one has that much lemonade!” The crowd was starting to get nasty, but this wasn’t going to deter the young man.
“Yes, it would liters and liters.” He agreed. “But look around the room. How many of us are there? I have worked out how much we would need and how many people there are and…look the long and the short of it is if every person in the village brought 1 cup of lemonade we would have enough to fill the fountain and then we would be the first village to have a lemonade fountain.”
Most of the crowd erupted at the ridiculous idea and the terrible calculations. All except for an old man who was one of the town’s best craftsmen, known for his skill and wisdom. He rubbed his chin and thought carefully. After a few minutes, while others talked about how impossible the task was he motioned to get people’s attention.
“I have thought about this”. He looked over at the young man and took a breath. “I think he could be right. There is about the right number of people and fountain is probably the right size.”
This left the room stunned in silence. While the young man might have been crazy or naive, no one doubted the old man’s wisdom.
The young man stood again. “But this will only work if everyone brings a cup. It can’t work most of us or some of us do this. We all have to agree.”
At this point, all eyes turned to the mayor. He shrugged and stood. “Well, I call for a vote. If everyone agrees let’s do this, but if some people are against it, we cannot go ahead.”
After voting, the mayor stepped forward with the results. His eyebrows raised at the as he read the note before he announced it. “100% of the vote has agreed to try the lemonade fountain idea”. He shrugged and finished with “Well, what do we have to lose?”
The meeting finished with an agreement that fountain would be drained of the water in it and that the following week everyone would come with a cup of lemonade and there would a ceremony of everyone pouring the lemonade into the fountain.
While the meeting finished with a number of people still a little skeptical, over the course of the week there was a growing sense of excitement about the lemonade fountain. People talked about how exciting it would be so that on the day, which had become known as “Filling Day”, there was a sense of celebration and a festival atmosphere.
On Filling Day, everyone in the village lined up with their cup eager to add to the lemonade fountain. The town mayor stood with a list of everyone’s name. As people poured their cup into the fountain their name was ticked off. The young man stood by and people would clap him on the back and congratulate him as they watched the level of the fountain grow.
Finally, the last person added their cup and the fountain was full. The young man had been right: the fountain had been filled by everyone in the town. A cheer went up as the fountain was turned on.
The young man took a cup and went to taste the fountain while the rest of the town celebrated. As he tasted from the cup he looked confused. He looked to the old man and drew another cup, again looking confused. The old man likewise drew a cup and looked at the young man. He too looked confused. They looked at each other and said at the same time:
“It tastes like water!”
The old man looked around and saw a small child looking at the ground. He bent down and made the child look at him. “Child, did you put lemonade in the fountain?”
The child looked down again and shook his head.
“My mother said it wouldn’t matter if we added some water. Everyone else is giving lemonade, a cup here or there wouldn’t matter.”
The old man looked up and found another random person and asked him, “Did you put lemonade in the fountain?”
The man’s face dropped and said it all, “One cup of water wasn’t going to make a difference…”
The old man asked another. “With all these people one cup of water wouldn’t be noticed…”
Again and again. The same reply “It was just one cup”.
He then stood on the edge of the fountain and called for everyone else’s attention, who by now was confused by not having a lemonade fountain.
“Did anyone add lemonade to the fountain?” Some people did not bother to put their hands up and just looked at the ground. Others started to raise their hands and then realized their lie and ended up the same.
After a minute or two, there was an awkward silence with everyone looking down and no hands in the air.
And the village remained ordinary.