Sunday, 8 January 2012

From irritation to breakthrough improvement

When Ephta learned that Selqart was sick, he was devastated. He didn't tell anyone, but Selqart's sickness was a sign of impending ruin. Lying in bed awake all night, Ephta passed review to his options, wondering what he was going to do if Selqart died.

The next morning, he got up early, ate his morning bread dipped in olive oil, and hurried to the market in search of a physician. "My partner Selqart is sick, come with me to his house," urged Ephta when he found Psamik, an Egyptian physician. "Selqart is an old man, but I cannot afford his death."

When they arrived at Selqart's house, they found him sitting immobile on a chair in his kitchen. After examining the old man, Psamik shook his head. "I can give him some herbs, but they are expensive."

Ephta hesitated. His rich clothes identified him as a merchant and he knew that it was foolish to throw good money into a hopeless case. "Will your herbs cure Selqart?" Ephta asked cautiously.

Psamik looked at Ephta straight in the eye, trying to assess his character. What the physician saw told him that, in this case, it was not advisable to stretch the truth. "Your partner has one day and one night to live," Psamik sentenced in a neutral voice, "with or without my herbs."

"His death will be my end," Ephta murmured, staring at the old man sitting motionless on the chair. The prospect of a future without Selqart had terrorized Ephta all night. The catastrophe was now about to become a reality.

When a patient died, the price of a physician's consultation was a copper coin. "Not much," thought Psamik regretfully as he collected his due from Ephta. "If I had lied," Psamik reflected, "I could have sold him my herbs for a silver coin."

Psamik had moved from Alexandria to Berut in the hope of making a fortune practising medicine, but six years later, he was still living from hand to mouth. In the year 1400 B.C., relentless competition from Chaldean healers made it hard for physicians to earn a living.

Anyway, if Psamik had learned one thing since he had arrived in Berut, it was that it paid to be entrepreneurial when dealing with Phoenician and Babylonian merchants. "Are you looking for someone to replace Selqart?" he inquired.

"Selqart is irreplaceable," Ephta replied full of sadness. "He is an Egyptian priest and he knows the language of silence." Surprised, Psamik looked at the dying old man, wondering how on earth an Egyptian priest had come to join a Phoenician merchant in a business venture.

"I am also Egyptian and I have studied medicine in Karnak," countered Psamik. "I have also learned the language of silence." That was of course a wild exaggeration, since, during his medical studies, Psamik had only learned to read rudimentary texts, mostly formulas for preparing potions.

Learning the intricacies of written language was something reserved to the high priests of Ammon. Ephta knew that Psamik was grossly overstating his knowledge, but being a Phoenician merchant, Ephta could not help appreciating Psamik's drive to push himself forward.

Ephta took in a deep breath. "Without Selqart, my business will collapse in a week," he explained overwhelmed. "Selqart is in charge of recording my transactions in writing and nobody else here knows the language of silence. How will I now be able to keep track of hundred of purchases of tin, copper, and olive oil?"

The next day, Psamik started to work in Ephta's business. He put order to Selqart's notes to the extent that he was able to understand them and took up the task of writing down lists of cargoes from ships arriving at or leaving Berut.

"Making written records is a backbreaking job and the results are far from accurate," Psamik soon realized irritated, since his notes were based on oral reports from illiterate ship's captains. "How can things be improved?"

Psamik's attempts at teaching what he knew of the language of silence to Phoenician apprentices proved unsuccessful. Egyptian writing demanded learning a hundred different symbols and a thousand different combinations of those. No wonder that becoming a high priest of Ammon required nine years of studies.

"Find a way to spread the language of silence and I will make you a partner in my business," Ephta proposed to Psamik one evening. "If I had regular written information from my agents in Tharros and Cirta, I could grow my business tenfold."

The prospect of becoming a partner in Ephta's trade spurred Psamik to look for a solution. Day and night, he tried to figure out what to do, but the problem seemed insoluble. Written language remained too complicated, the learning process too slow.

Psamik turned over all possibilities in his head, but the breakthrough innovation occurred to him only a month later while watching children play. In the sand, the children had drawn a rabbit and a goat and, by adding extra legs to the animals, they were keeping track of the results of their game. The rabbit and the goat were each symbolising all members in a team.

"I have found a way to simplify the language of silence," Psamik announced proudly to Ephta the following day. Indeed, Psamik soon managed to teach an apprentice how to record transactions by using combinations of 21 symbols representing 21 basic sounds of the spoken language.

The invention of phonetic writing in 1400 B.C. made possible for the first time to exchange information at a low cost and paved the way for the later spread of Greek and Latin, literature, and philosophy.

The transition from complex ideograms to phonetic writing enabled human beings to use silent communication and has led to three thousand years of sustained economic growth. The lesson to be drawn from the story? Breakthrough innovation often comes from a mixture of ambition and irritation.


[Image by timheyer under Creative Commons Attribution License. See the license terms under]