“It looks like an actual case of herding cats!” laughed Jonathan.
We were sitting in the veterinary clinic waiting room with Ruff, Jonathan’s new golden lab puppy. It was time to have the pup checked out and vaccinated so he could be licensed. Two grumpy cats escaped from their insecurely fastened plastic cat carrier and took refuge beneath chairs.
The cat owner then tried to round up her kitties. That’s when pets pandemonium set in. The cats eluded efforts of people chasing them. Other caged cats began meowing. Ruff and one other dog started barking. The cats’ owner became ever more flustered.
After several minutes and with help from clinic employees, the cats were captured and placed back in the pet carrier. The rest of the other animals and people calmed down. The only harm done was to the fragile egos of the cats. Cats do have egos, don’t they?
The cat herding comparison is one of my all-time favorite idiomatic phrases. In the catty case at the vet clinic, herding cats was like herding cats.
The phrase apparently originated in the information technology industry with several people claiming to be the one to coin the idiom. The origin of the phrase goes back to 1985 and is allegedly credited to computer programmer Dave Platt, who said, “Managing senior programmers is like herding cats.”
Meantime, Platt denies originating the idiom. Platt said, “As much as I’d like to, I can’t claim to be the originator of this particular idiom. It’s one I ran into years ago–I think I may have first heard it from Dale Luck (a guy I worked with at NTG and 3DO), and I have a vague memory of hearing it originally ascribed to John Dijkstra (but I could well be wrong about this). I do remember stating it… a few years ago, in a USENET post or some email… but I did not come up the original analogy.”
Ever since the mid-1980s, the phrase has been popularly used in many contexts. In political circles, frustrated democrats often say, “Getting Democrats organized is like herding cats.” In the science field, academic journalist John Naughton wrote, “Even in the best times, managing science has been compared to herding cats; it is not done well, but one is surprised to find it done at all.”
“The key to success is to risk thinking unconventional thoughts. Convention is the enemy of progress. If you go down just one corridor of thought you never get to see what’s in the rooms leading off it.”–inventor Trevor Baylis
People employed in creative fields are as difficult to manage as rounding up cats. A former program director at my old radio station loved to use the herding cats idiom when staff meetings became disorganized into heated discussions. A few times, the meetings had taken such a life of their own that the boss simply adjourned them out of frustration.
A problem that meditators have, is managing our monkey minds. If you’ve ever sat down on the cushion in the ritual of formal meditation, you know that calming the mind and thoughts is like mentally herding cats. It’s an act of futility that even the great masters have encountered.
Day to day living often entails dealing with frustrating people and events. Sometimes the only thing to do is to let go of the stress and admit that dealing with other people is like herding cats. Think about the kinds of “cats” you herd.