The Dwarf’s Advice
How to access priceless information
July 31, 2019
From the Fairy Tale “The Water of Life”
Once upon a time, there was an old king who had three sons and was very sick. Nobody could cure him, not even the best doctors in the realm. One day a famous doctor came from a foreign country and said that the only thing that could save the king was the water of life – but that it was hard to find and the path to it was filled with dangers.
So the sons decided one after another to search for the water of life. The oldest set out first and once he had been riding along for a while, he saw a dwarf on the path who called out to him and said “Where to so fast?” “Stupid shrimp,” said the prince proudly, “that’s none of your business.” And he rode on. But the little man was angry and so he cast an evil spell. Soon the prince found himself in a ravine, and the further he rode, the more tightly the mountains seemed to be closing in on him, and finally the path became so narrow that he could not move even a single step forward; it was impossible to turn his horse around or to get out of the saddle, and he sat there, trapped.
After the first son failed to return, the second one started on his way, also met the dwarf and ignored him just as his older brother had done. So he, too, ended up trapped in the ravine.
Now the youngest brother departed. When he encountered the dwarf who asked him where he was going, the youngest prince stopped, acknowledged him and said, “I’m searching for the water of life, for my father is deathly ill.” “And do you know where to find it?” “No,” said the prince. “Because you have carried yourself in the manner befitting a prince and were not overzealous like your false brothers, I will give you the information you seek and tell you how to get to the water of life.” The dwarf explained to the prince exactly what to do in order to get past the guards into the enchanted castle to find the water of life. With these instructions, the prince was able to reach his goal and begin his homeward journey carrying with him the water of life.
The Dead End of Arrogance
What can we learn from this? First of all, we are told how the two older brothers are too hurried to be bothered to give the dwarf any of their attention; they even denigrate him as someone unworthy of a real answer. Their arrogance has a double cost: for one thing, the dwarf is offended and takes revenge in the form of a curse. The two older brothers’ narrow-mindedness is literally mirrored to them in the form of the ravine in which they cannot move forwards or backwards. Furthermore, we later learn that they missed their chance to gather essential information for reaching their goal. Their attitudes lead them to get in their own way.
Time for Dwarves
By contrast, the youngest son is mindful. Instead of merely telling the dwarf in passing where he is going, he stops and engages in a dialogue with him. He not only tells the dwarf where he is going, but also the reason for his journey. In other words, he takes the dwarf seriously and shows him respect by being open about his destination and his motives. This makes possible the dwarf’s second question about whether the prince knows the way, and to this the prince also answers with the honest admission that he does not know how to reach his goal. Only then does the dwarf reveal his true gift: detailed directions including how to surmount the obstacles along the way. And the young prince shows the dwarf respect once more by listening to him and proceeding to follow his directions precisely. Thus, he receives the water of life and can save his father.
The scene from the fairy tale reveals three principles that help us access the best information when we least expect it:
1. Pay Attention to “Dwarves”
It’s a familiar story: we rush from one appointment to the next and are preoccupied with our own to-do list. Often, when we are so caught up in our own seemingly important lives, we don’t take the time to pause and answer a question seriously. By doing this we miss out on chances to gather valuable information and allies who might come to our aid in unexpected ways at crucial moments. Instead, arrogance and carelessness can do massive damage—and we don’t realize it until we are left standing alone or have maneuvered ourselves into a ravine with no way out. Thus we underestimate the power of “dwarves” at our own risk. By contrast, the reward for respecting the small and seemingly insignificant beings is immense.
2. Revealing your Motives
The dwarf’s advice is only disclosed if we reveal what we’re planning and why. How much does our environment know about our goals and motives? In what ways are we ready to share with others – especially with those who may seem insignificant – what drives us; even if we don’t believe that others can seriously help us? Even in a fairy tale the prince does not conceive of asking the dwarf for advice, but rather the dwarf asks the prince the pivotal question:And do you know where to find the water of life? This is the answer to the previously revealed motive of curing the father, who is deathly ill. When we show respect and our motives are honest and transparent, others readily give us helpful information. It might not be exactly the information we’re expecting – but it might be exactly what we need to know in order to reach our goal.
3. Standing by your Ignorance
The third condition for receiving crucial information is admitting your ignorance without beating around the bush. It’s not just in fairy tales that goals are set even though it’s totally unclear how they will be reached. But are we prepared to admit to having set out in total ignorance? How would the prince’s older brothers have reacted to the dwarf’s question? This is where the fairy tale shows us that simple openness wins.
So, when we encounter others with openness and respect regardless of their apparent status, so the fairy tale goes, we have a good chance of being gifted with priceless knowledge in return.