Beware the 40-Chicken Alligator


When I was a teenager, I had my heart set on a Ford Bronco.

All the cool kids had them (this is Texas, after all), and it was a decade or so before the Bronco would become synonymous with a certain low-speed chase. I thought all that stood between me and self-actualization were the keys to a Ford Bronco.

“Sounds like you’re about to land yourself a 40-chicken alligator,” my mom warned me.

If you grew up in my household, you knew what this meant: don’t bite off more than you can chew. (Only a Southerner would explain one metaphor with another.)

I always assumed the “40-chicken alligator” analogy was a Texas cliché, but I Googled it after my mom passed away and could find no mention of it anywhere. So, I’m pretty sure this one is straight-up Sandy May.

My mom explained the origin of the saying this way: baby alligators are surprisingly cute. So cute, in fact, that many an unwitting (and, presumably, not very bright) person has adopted one and taken it home. And, for a while, maybe it works out OK. They start out eating a whole chicken a day, which seems a bit excessive, but you can manage a chicken a day.

But then, he starts needing 5 chickens every day. Then 15. And, before you know it, your “pet” is downing 40 chickens every single day, your wife has left you, and your home is facing foreclosure.

Long story short, you didn’t think ahead about the true costs of your commitment – the time, the energy, the maintenance, and the unending chicken supply – and it was way more than you could handle.

The same was true about my beloved would-be Bronco. I might have been able to come up with the down payment and the monthly car note (although it would have been a stretch), but I hadn’t figured on the other costs: insurance, gas, maintenance, repairs, or parking and speeding tickets (just in case).

It didn’t take much calculating to turn my fantasy car into a gas-guzzling, 40-chicken alligator.

What’s Your 40-Chicken Alligator?

40-chicken alligators take many forms: volunteer commitments, relationships, fixer-upper projects, business opportunities – you name it. Almost any commitment can be a potential alligator with expensive tastes. So, as much as we love to try new things and help others, it’s important to resist the urge to say “yes” without researching just how many chickens are in our future.

I have lots of interests outside of work and I hate to say “no” when people ask for my help. But, like many people, I sometimes find myself saying “yes” to too many projects and then stressing myself out trying to keep all my commitments. More than anything, I don’t want to do a bad job or disappoint those I’ve made commitments to.

So, I’ve learned to be intentional with my “yesses.” Before I take on anything new, I ask some hard questions, including (but not limited to):

  • What are all of the steps that would be required for me to complete this?
  • What is the financial investment?
  • How much time will it take?
  • Does it further my long-term plan or detract from it?

Recognize when you’re taking on too much. Make sure that you schedule all the things you’ve already committed to on your calendar, including some time for yourself, be protective of your time, and set boundaries.

Some commitments are worth it. They improve our life and help us live our values. Sometimes, it’s worth it to say “yes.”

‘No’ Is A Whole Sentence

At other times, though, as cute as that little baby gator is, you know it’s going to grow up into a beast. So, learn to say “no.”

As my momma would say, “‘No’ is a whole sentence. You don’t have to explain yourself. You don’t have to go into detail or tell everybody why. Just say ‘no.’”

Some variations for Southern gals could be, “No, I’m sorry, I can’t help at this time” or “No, thank you, sugar.”

There’s no need to be nasty, after all. Leave that to the alligators.

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