Optimism During Adversity

Once upon a time, a farmer in China used an old horse to plow his field.  One afternoon, the horse dropped dead. Everyone in the village said, “Oh, what a horrible thing to happen.”

The farmer said simply, “We’ll see.” He was so at peace and so calm, that everyone in the village got together and, admiring his attitude, gave him a new horse as a gift. Everyone’s reaction now was, “What a lucky man!”

And the farmer said, “We’ll see.”

A couple days later, the new horse jumped a fence and ran away. Everyone in the village shook their heads and said, “What a poor fellow!”

The farmer smiled and said, “We’ll see.”

Eventually, the horse found his way home, and everyone again said, “What a fortunate man.”

The farmer said, “We’ll see.”

Later in the year, the farmer’s young boy went out riding on the horse and fell and broke his leg. Everyone in the village said, “What a shame for the poor boy.”

The farmer said, “We’ll see.”

Two days later, the army came into the village to draft new recruits. When they saw that the farmer’s son had a broken leg, they decided not to recruit him.

Everyone said, “What a fortunate young man.”

The farmer smiled again – and said “We’ll see.”

-Chinese fable


A friend of mine recently lost her job.

She had been with her company for fifteen years, but due to the downturn in the economy was let go.  It was not performance based, rather it was based on the bottom line.  Another casualty of the oilfield.

The thing that struck me about the situation though is the positive attitude she brought to bear on it.  Fifteen years is a long time to invest in a company, and to be let go after all that time a bitter pill to swallow.  But the thing about it is that by the end of the conversation she was trying to console me!

I’ve had hiccups during my career as well and I like to think I’ve handled them smoothly.  If asked, I would consider myself as an optimist, with a punch of stoicism added in.  But I usually first respond to a situation by taking it to eleven, before finally calming down and thinking about how to make things work.

So It Goes…

I read that phrase in Slaughter-House Five by Kurt Vonnegut years ago, and it has served as my hard times mantra throughout the years.  Shit happens.  People change.  Situations are fluid.  When something has happened, it has happened.  The bell can’t be unrung and the only thing to do is press on from your current situation.

And if you find yourself in the middle of such an inflection point the best thing you can do is move forward with optimism, which to me represents a positive attitude irregardless of the odds.  There are a few reasons for this:

  1. Nobody likes a Debbie Downer – I’ve got problems, you’ve got problems, we’ve all got problems.  And you can bet your ass that there is somebody out there with problems that are 10X worse than yours.  Problems so bad that you’d wish it was as simple as a job loss or other inconvenience.
  2. People DO like a Positive Polly – (<– click that link for real) When you are at your lowest it is easiest to lift others up.  I’ve seen this at funerals, where it is the families that are providing the most comfort.  When you hit hard times and need support you are more likely to get it by acting right.  Positive energy is reciprocated.  Negative energy is avoided.
  3. You can’t make good changes in a bad state – This is a recipe for downward spiral into self pity and unwashed laundry.  Think about how many people were banging down your door the last time you were crying into a pint of Ben & Jerry’s in your pajama pants.  Doesn’t happen.  Positive life changes often require a major shift of perspective.  And this often occurs when something happens to shake up our happy little world.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this type of mind over matter lately as it happens.  This on the tail end of 2016 was such a bad year style posts and news clips.  Was it?  Was it the worst ever?  Did your dog die and you cut off your thumb working with power tools?  Or did a bunch of shit happen to people in the news that has absolutely no affect on you, plus maybe one or two things that disrupted the perception of how your world needs to be?  If you were still able to go get a Starbucks twenty minutes later then it probably wasn’t the end of the world.

Change isn’t inherently good or bad; it’s all in how you frame it.  What seems like a curse can end up a blessing.  I was once fired from a great job that I loved.  It seemed terrible at first, but ended up leading me to heights that I may not have reached had I stayed there spinning my wheels.  If you see adversity as negative, then it will be negative.  And as a wise man once said, “when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”

I’d like to give props to my friend for crushing it on the positivity scale during a hard time.  Because change isn’t good or bad; it’s just change.  It is how you perceive it that makes it so.  And I implore you to perceive it with a positive attitude because this begets positive energy, with results in positive change.  Either way it’s a spiral.

You just choose the direction.

5 thoughts on “Optimism During Adversity

  1. I agree whole heartedly! I recently took voluntary redundancy in a view to return to college and continue to study. When one door closes, another one opens. I have a house, car, good friends and been fortunate enough to save a few quid while the industry was good. Turning advertisity into positivity is difficult due to circumstances. Even then having a positive outlook will be good in terms of interview, job hunting, and keeping the rest of your family upbeat when all things look bleak.

  2. Amazing post!

    Really well put, I have it bookmarked and will be sharing it with others.

  3. Love this post, especially the part about how people thing 2016 was a bad year simply because of things that happened to others, not to them. I will be sharing this on my blog later today. Thank you, Sean.

  4. Thanks Jill!

    There is so much negativity that surrounds current events. And this is driven in large part by the media and all of these outlets that are screaming in your face to get your attention. So you end up with all of this manufactured outrage, which brings us to the point where regular people will no longer speak up for fear of being lambasted online.

    Which is why I don’t watch the news!

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