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Exclusive: Interview with a lemming

September 17, 2015, 1:00 PM UTC
Illustration by Ross Murray

I had a chat with one of the senior lemmings in the business world the other day. Why? Because it’s pretty clear that it’s lemmings that move the markets, and very often people neglect to ask them the proper questions about how they see things.

The lemming greeted me in the den of his burrow, a cozy place festooned with knickknacks. Very comfy furniture. He was a small creature, but as handsome and well turned out as a little rodent could be. His neat fur suit was sleek and shiny, but his itty-bitty button eyes darted this way and that, as if watching an imaginary tennis game. Lemmings are very nervous, as a rule, not only about what might go wrong but also about what might go right—which they won’t know what to do with.

“You are a lemming,” I began. “I’d just like you to state that for the record.”

“Yes. There’s nothing wrong with it. We have our way of looking at things, and for the most part things have worked out okay. There are certainly a lot of us here to tell the tale.” Here he chuckled good-naturedly to himself and briefly groomed his little whiskers.


“What is it that you’re so nervous about all the time?” I inquired. “Many other creatures don’t jump at every shadow.”

“They’re probably right!” he exclaimed. “But we’re lemmings! Lemmings always see the worst thing that could possibly happen and then feel like it’s already happening. If that’s true, why shouldn’t we all just jump off a cliff? So we’re very afraid, pretty much all the time. And that drives our strategy.”

“You would call it a strategy?”

“Certainly! It’s as good as any other!” He paused for a moment to scratch his ear very quickly with his hind paw. “Sorry,” he said. “Bad habit.”

“So, for instance, what are you afraid of now?” I was almost too scared to ask, and my concern was well founded.

“China!” he exclaimed. “And Greece and Puerto Rico and Spain and ISIS and the collapse of Europe and the Fed (no matter which way it goes) and the whole political situation. Goodness!”

I could see his tiny heart was beating fast, and his ears had turned an iridescent pink. “Oh my,” he panted. “I have a tremendous urge to fling myself off a precipice. I need to discuss that with about a thousand other lemmings.”

“That’s interesting to me,” I said. “Do you have actual meetings with other lemmings? Or do you just … all feel the same trepidations at one time and go bonkers and act stupidly together?”

“I think sort of the latter,” he said, licking his front paw thoughtfully.

“And where to now?” I asked.

“Well, I don’t know,” said the lemming. “The truth is, we don’t think much about the future. Logically, I’d say there’s every reason for optimism. The economy is obviously getting stronger. Everybody wants to put their money in America. Hell, a $20,000 railroad shack in the right location is worth a million dollars if a Russian oligarch or a Google executive (GOOG) wants to live there. So I don’t really feel any big push in the lemming community to find a cliff right this minute.”

“But the next time a scary piece of news pops up?”

“Oh, we’ll freak out,” he said sadly. “We did in August. Almost drove the entire world economy over the edge. I’d like to say publicly, in this forum, that we’re all sorry about that.” He took out a minuscule handkerchief and shined his nose. I could see he was deeply moved. “But we’ll do it again the first chance we get,” he added, and gave me an impish grin.

I got out of there. But I thought it was an enlightening exchange. You’ve got to respect the lemmings. They are who they are and they do what they do. The question for each one of us is whether we choose to follow them when they go nuts. If we have a choice, that is. I’m not sure we do.

Follow Stanley Bing at and on Twitter at @thebingblog.

A version of this article appears in the September 15, 2015 issue of Fortune magazine with the headline “Interview with a lemming.”