Poet Charles Bukowski on the crab bucket theory, and the loneliness of the leader

Have you heard the story about the way leaders can be pulled back from taking risks by other leaders interested in staying safe in their crowded crab bucket? No? Well, read on — beat poet Charles Bukowski tells the story of his great escape — and questions whether, for real innovators, this myth is true!

the great escape
by Charles Bukowski

listen, he said, you ever seen a bunch of crabs in a
no, I told him.
well, what happens is that now and then one crab
will climb up on top of the others
and begin to climb toward the top of the bucket,
then, just as he’s about to escape
another crab grabs him and pulls him back
really? I asked.
really, he said, and this job is just like that, none
of the others want anybody to get out of
here. that’s just the way it is
in the postal service!
I believe you, I said.

just then the supervisor walked up and said,
you fellows were talking.
there is no talking allowed on this

I had been there for eleven and one-half

I got up off my stool and climbed right up the
and then I reached up and pulled myself right
out of there.

it was so easy it was unbelievable.
but none of the others followed me.

and after that, whenever I had crab legs
I thought about that place.
I must have thought about that place
maybe 5 or 6 times

before I switched to lobster.

“the great escape” by Charles Bukowski from Sifting Through the Madness for the Word, the Line, the Way. © Ecco Press, 2004.

fb5d8266a17fdd7a7fd0eaf386a3bc451dfea5b3I love this poem. It shows that freedom — and by extension innovation — is about taking a risk, despite what the other crabs say, and then dealing with the consequences, good and bad. It celebrates a moment when Bukowski saw “the writing on the wall,” and took a leap of faith, a step that gave him the time and space to create his challenging poetry.

And it shows that the crab bucket doesn’t work when you don’t look back with regret, hoping that the other crabs will find their freedom, yearning for a companion when you take a risk. “It was so easy it was unbelievable, but none of the others followed me….” This is a lonely, liberating moment most innovators have to take in order to achieve their goals.

Have you taken that leap? Did the crabs in your old bucket try to stop you, or were you too fast and clear? How did it affect you as a leader, as you grew after your great escape? I’d love to hear your story.


  1. Ferne Horner Of the Hairball Gazette · · Reply

    I know that poem and was glad to be reminded. Timing was perfect. Thank you. Ferne


    1. Yeah… It’s pretty amazing isn’t it, how surprisingly easy it is to shake loose, once it’s clear what’s necessary. Also interesting to me, but not in the poem, is that sometimes the identities of the (bucket-loving) crabs surprise me! Sigh…


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