I have been a longtime student of the great British philosopher Alan Watts, one of the main ways he has influenced my thinking comes from his story of reframing, “The Chinese Farmer.”
Once upon a time, there was a Chinese farmer whose horse ran away. That evening, all of his neighbours came around to commiserate. They said, “We are so sorry to hear your horse has run away. This is most unfortunate.” The farmer said, “Maybe.”
The next day the horse came back bringing seven wild horses with it, and in the evening everybody came back and said, “Oh, isn’t that lucky. What a great turn of events. You now have eight horses!” The farmer again said, “Maybe.”
The following day his son tried to break one of the wild horses, and while riding it, he was thrown and broke his leg. The neighbours then said, “Oh dear, that’s too bad,” and the farmer responded, “Maybe.”
The next day the conscription officers came around to conscript people into the army, and they rejected his son because he had a broken leg. Again all the neighbours came around and said, “Isn’t that great!” Again, he said, “Maybe.”
The whole process of nature is an integrated process of immense complexity, and it’s really impossible to tell whether anything that happens in it is good or bad — because you never know what will be the consequence of the misfortune; or, you never know what will be the consequences of good fortune.
This story is not to dismiss the reality that when unpleasant events occur we can just reframe them away, but rather that, reframing them is better than regularly reopening the scar.
As a teenager, I set myself the goals to play for two of the best rugby clubs in Europe, Toulouse and Leinster. I played for Leinster for several years culminating in a great period, including playing for my country only to be plagued by injury and falling out of favour with the coach. That experience felt like a crisis at the moment. However, if I had not gone through that period of misfortune, I would not have pursued a new club. The misfortune led to good fortune in my contract with Toulouse. Furthermore, when I reached the pinnacle of my career in Toulouse, I tore my calf muscle, ruptured tendons in my knee and ultimately experienced a new period of misfortune. It took years for me to make sense of it all and let go of the mental anguish it caused and I carried. However, today it all makes sense, at least I have reframed it to make sense for me.
The experience in Leinster with the coach was the result of me speaking truth to power, he didn’t appreciate when I called out some suspect selection decisions (when I was picked by the way, so I had no personal issue). As a result, he rarely selected me in the starting lineup again and I was furious, for a long (too long) time.
Today – in my consulting work – that very experience has instilled in me a drive to help leaders develop cultures of psychological safety (inspired by former Innovation Show guest Amy Edmondson). In addition, I have explored deeply the need to speak truth to power to avoid a potential catastrophe in business and life (inspired by former Innovation Show guests Micah Zenko, Ed Hess and Jim Detert and many more). Furthermore, “the fall” in Toulouse planted a seed of curiosity in my mind to research and understand both mindset and mentality as core ingredients for success in any endeavour. All this has brought me to what I do today including my work as a corporate coach, executive coach and university lecturer. I am driven by this desire to share this mindset of permanent reinvention, which is the principal theme in my book Undisruptable.
Yes, the experience of a fall sucks, especially when it is sudden and out of your control, but when we are prepared – even somewhat – the fall feels less severe. Let me share a wonderful story that illustrates this, The Turner Oak story, a story I heard from our recent guest on The Innovation Show Dr Nerina Ramlakhan.
Life Uh, Finds a Way: The Gift in the Curse
A great storm hit the south of England in 1987. Homes were destroyed and many people were rescued by emergency services. Fifteen million trees were felled by the storm including 700 trees in the wonderful Kew Gardens in London. Staff were devastated, particularly when they discovered that one of the fallen was the 200-year-old Turner Oak, the oldest and biggest tree in the Gardens. The Oak had been struggling for some time and some staff believed she would be chopped up and removed. With so much on their plates, the staff naturally prioritised the trees they believed stood the best chance of survival. To give the Turner Oak a lifeline, they propped her up the best they could and went about their business. It took a full 3 years before they got back to her.
To their great surprise, the Turner’s Oak not only survived the storm but she was thriving. Her roots had re-established themselves and were feeding her foliage abundantly. Furthermore, since the storm she had put more than a third of her growth back on, her branches were stronger and her foliage more abundant.
Before the “shake up”, over many years, people walked around her and this footfall compacted the soil. When the storm hit, already weak and undernourished, she easily fell victim to the winds. Despite this apparent tragedy, however, the storm was exactly what she needed. The lesson the staff learned from the Turner Oak changed tree care forever. The story of nature picking her up and shaking her roots out heralded the beginning of a new era in tree management in gardens across the world today. Today, special machinery exists to aerate the soil around tree plates in a process called ‘air cultivation’.
Failure and catastrophe can provide a huge impetus and opportunity in stimulating transformation, new ideas, and new directions in business and in one’s personal life. Sometimes a storm, while devastating in the moment is exactly what we need to shake us from stagnation.
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