Life is full of surprises – how’s that for a clichéd start? The thing about clichés is that they hold more than a grain of truth, which is why we have so many of them. What matters isn’t that we’re exposed to unexpected occurrences in our personal or professional lives – it’s how we respond that counts.
There’s a reasonably well known, and possibly ancient, Taoist story about a farmer and his horse. The horse runs away, and when his neighbour commiserates with the farmer about his loss, the farmer says “Who knows what is good or bad luck?”. Subsequently, the horse returns with some wild horses, and again, on being complimented on his fortune, the farmer replies “Who knows what is good or bad?”. His son, in attempting to break one of the horses instead breaks his leg, and the farmer responds with a similar refrain when he is offered sympathy. An army turns up looking for conscripts, and because of his broken leg, the farmer’s son is spared. When the neighbours congratulated the farmer, he again responds with “Who knows what is good or bad?”.
So, is the farmer incapable of determining positive and negative outcomes? No, that’s not the point of the parable. The point is to respond with as much equanimity as possible; to suspend judgement until we know more about the situation.
In a more modern context, Jocko Willink, when presented with apparently adverse information by one of his subordinates would always respond with “Good!”. This could cause a confused response in most people. What Jocko meant was to look at challenges as opportunities. Didn’t get the promotion you were looking for? Good – more time to get better at your job and explore other development opportunities before you try again. In the event of apparent bad luck, look for the positive – pick yourself up and go again. “Get after it!” in Jocko-speak.
Another way to think about this is to use an equation I’ve quoted elsewhere – “E+R=O”, or Events+Responses=Outcome. I’m not sure where this originated, but I’ve seen it attributed to Jack Canfield. The essence of this way of thinking is that we can’t control the events that occur or guarantee the outcome, but we can control our response. In fact, that is all we have control over. Having a positive or less reactive response to an unexpected event can help drive better outcomes. If we react negatively to a change in circumstances it can set us back instead of helping to move us forward. If we’re managing a team of people and we’re handed an un-forecasted budget challenge, we could throw our hands up, and complain about the unfairness of it all. Our team will then follow our lead – that’s what teams do – and respond in that fashion themselves. If, instead, we respond with “Ok, let’s adjust, and move forward.” it changes the tone of the conversation and helps us make new plans based on our new reality. In addition, by mapping possible outcomes to a situation and having some prepared responses we reduce the chance of being entirely reactive.
I’m not claiming for one minute that I always react in a positive or neutral way. After a long day in the office, an unexpected 2+ hour commute due to a crash on my route home can irritate me as much as the next person. I am trying to adjust continuously, though. And, by having an approach in my head that allows me to do that, and by reacting in an open-minded way, I reduce my stress levels. I also increase the chances that I will be able to make better choices when faced with the unexpected. So give it a try – check your initial response and assess whether a more measured approach will yield a better result. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.