Who Knows What’s Good or Bad?
(My TEDx Talk transcript)
By David G. Allan
For 200,000 years humans have been accumulating wisdom. It’s even in our name: homo sapiens sapiens. The word “sapiens” comes from the Latin “sapient” meaning “to be wise.”
And of all the ways we can accumulate wisdom, the most common, but not necessarily the most fun is through experience: the good and bad things that happened in our lives. But there are other ways to gain wisdom.
A more consistently enjoyable one is through storytelling. And not just any stories, but the stories that speak to our human condition and that tell us what are place is in this world.
I’m going to tell you one of those stories.
Its origin is unknown but it comes from the Taoist tradition so it could easily be more than 2,000 years old. And even though that’s about as old stories get, this one is completely relevant to your life and how you can live in the future.
It’s a story of a farmer and his horse.
One day his horse runs away. And his neighbor comes over and says, to commiserate, “I’m so sorry about your horse.” And the farmer says “Who Knows What’s Good or Bad?” The neighbor is confused because this is clearly terrible. The horse is the most valuable thing he owns.
But the horse comes back the next day and he brings with him 12 feral horses. The neighbor comes back over to celebrate, “Congratulations on your great fortune!” And the farmer replies again: “Who Knows What’s Good or Bad?”
And the next day the farmer’s son is taming one of the wild horses and he’s thrown and breaks his leg. The neighbor comes back over, “I’m so sorry about your son.” The farmer repeats: “Who Knows What’s Good or Bad?”
Sure enough, the next day the army comes through their village and is conscripting able-bodied young men to go and fight in war, but the son is spared because of his broken leg.
And this story can go on and on like that. Good. Bad. Who knows?
But what’s the point?
Well, the meaning of that story is that the Western paradigm in which we label experiences good or bad — is wrong. It’s a false dichotomy. At the very least, this distinction between good and bad is not so clear; it’s blurry.
The Taoist have another way symbolize Who Knows What’s Good or Bad and it’s in that old hippie chestnut, the yin and yang symbol.
We see black and white, right and wrong, good and bad, but it’s fluid. One is melting into the other, even contained inside the other. These things aren’t contradictory they’re complimentary. They’re two parts of a greater whole. There is just what is. And it’s good. (And bad.)
Now, what about the really bad stuff?
I not going to use Who Knows What’s Good or Bad to defend any of these things. But I’m not trying to explain the world through Who Knows What’s Good or Bad. I’m just arguing that it works as a personal philosophy.
And as personal stories go, former TED Talks are full of examples where people found good out of what seemed bad.
There’s the climber that lost both of his legs and he became a better climber because of prosthetics he invented.
There’s the son of a terrorist whose father’s actions led him to become a peace activist.
And there’s the woman with autism whose acute empathy for animals led her to create a more humane form of slaughter.
And it’s not surprising that Temple Grandin’s story was made into a movie. Hollywood loves Who Knows What’s Good or Bad stories.
Have you ever heard the one about the other farmer, the one whose family is killed, but that frees him to go off and fight that we wins, a Star War?
The idea that challenges help us grow, that we develop as a result of the hard things that happen to us is the classic hero’s journey.
Pain can give us focus. Defeat can create empathy. The idea that “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger,” these are all contained in the idea that we can get good out of the seemingly bad.
But the inverse is true too. You can find potentially bad in what seems good. My favorite example of this are lottery winners. Lottery winners are shockingly unhappy not long after their greatest wish comes true.
Think how often have you heard the phrase: “Be careful what you wish for”? That’s Who Knows What’s Good or Bad.
Having a clear head, even when things are up and looking for the hidden downsides, is key. I’m thinking of the housing bubble, the dot com boom, the roaring ‘20s. Having a greater perspective will help you make better decisions.
Beyond the fact that good can come from bad, and bad can come from good, this story has a deeper meaning. And the deeper meaning is that once you move past good and bad you become less concerned about outcome; you become more accepting to how things evolve naturally.
And if those things sound like Zen Buddhism, that’s not surprising when you think of how Buddhism spread: the Buddha lived in northern India and as his message spreads east, through go-with-flow Taoist China, by the time they end up Japan they are a hybrid of the two; a hybrid between traditional Buddhism and Taoism, which is Zen.
Remember the neighbor from the story? This is his emotional journey:
He’s up, he’s down, it’s good, it’s bad. This is most of us and how we deal with most things that happen in our lives. We’re on a roller coaster. I love roller coasters ,and they’re fun, but if you stay on one too long you’re going to get sick.
Now, here is your brain on Zen.
It’s not that the farmer is unengaged in life. It’s not that he is unable to be happy or sad. But he has a greater perspective. He sees the bigger picture. He know that he can’t stop things from happening, but he can control how he reacts to them. And it’s often not the experience that matters as what you do with that experience.
Which brings me back to the first time I read the story of the horse and the farmer.
I read it in a book by Huston Smith, the comparative religion scholar, and the book was called “The Religions of Man.” I read it while I was a philosophy major here at Maryland which meant I was reading a lot of textbooks; and I was reading Huston Smith for fun.
But despite all these pages that I was reading, somehow the 7 1/2 lines of this story stood out for me. I just kept thinking about them over and over again, not for any particular reason; I just liked this story.
And not long after reading it, the story made the surprising leap from the theoretical to the real.
I was a White House intern and one morning — I used to commute from campus to downtown, 45 minutes to an hour each way — I got down to the Old Executive Office Building and realized I had forgotten my security ID and they would not let me in. They said I had to go all the way back to my dorm to get it. And I was on the Metro and I was annoyed at myself for forgetting it. I was annoyed at the security policy. I was anxious that I was going to be two hours late to work.
And while I was on the Metro, a delivery man came on and he was pushing a dolly sky high with boxes. Every movement of the train threatened to knock this tower down. And then, as the Metro does, it just stopped out of nowhere and this tower of boxes was about to fall on a little old lady who was sitting right next to him. And I jumped up and caught the boxes with my body and my hands.
The delivery man and the old lady were effusively thanking me and I just modestly said “I’m just glad I was here to help.”
Who Knows What’s Good or Bad!
And then I started thinking what could I apply Who Knows What’s Good or Bad to. Everything, if you think about it. Mostly the small stuff, like that thing where you forget your keys, and you go back to get them and realize the other thing you forgot that’s even more important than the keys.
But the big stuff too. When I lived in San Francisco and applied for high profile job that I really wanted. And when I didn’t get it, I was devastated. I definitely did not see the good that came out of not getting that job. And then I got another job and I liked that job plenty. But my girlfriend got an opportunity to work overseas. And I followed her and I was able to keep the job I had and telecommute from Bangkok, Thailand. I would not have been able to do that if I had gotten the first job. I’m now married to that girlfriend.
Years later we were living in New York and my wife worked for a magazine and she got a big promotion and she got a big raise. That’s good, right? Except, less than a year later when the magazine was making budget cuts, she was the first one laid off because of that raise. That’s bad, right? Except that if you ask my wife now, she’ll tell that’s the best thing that ever happened to her career. She now writes magazine articles, she wrote a book, she’s an editorial director for a non-profit and she spends more time with our family.
I told my sister the story of the horse and the farmer and she incorporated it into her work. She’s a social worker in Phoenix, Arizona and she told the story to her clients. These are folks dealing with serious issues: homelessness, addiction, chronic unemployment. They have incorporated Who Knows What’s Good or Bad into their sessions. They now use it as shorthand to give context to their struggles and it helps them work it out emotionally.
My young daughters know the story of Who Knows What’s Good or Bad thanks to a panda named Stillwater.
Twenty years after I read the story in Huston Smith’s book, I read the story of the farmer and the horse for the second time, in this book by Jon Muth called “Zen Shorts.”
As I read them this story over and over and over again, as you do with young kids, I kept thinking I could have used this story when I was young. I wish I’d know about Who Knows What’s Good or Bad when I was 8, 12, 16.
But then I thought Who Knows What’s Good or Bad works retroactively!
My parents got divorced when I was 2. But, I didn’t grow up in an unhappy marriage.
I was raised by a single working mom and money was always tight. But that experience led to so many things that I value in my life. My confidence, my independence, my political views, even how I raise my daughters.
In fact, if there’s ever a moment in your life where you’re truly happy, where you feel like all the pieces have come together, you can look back at everything before that moment and find the seeds — even in the bad stuff — that led to the contentment you have now.
Is it possible that every bad thing is really good if you just wait long enough?
I do know three things. I know that it’s important to find a deeper meaning in the good and bad things that happen in our lives. Look for the bad inside the good. Look for the good inside the bad. It will let you see the bigger picture and you will make better decisions.
Second, if you can pull down the framing devise of good-and-bad, on the other side you will have a deeper understand of how the world works. You will be calmer in the face of stress, you will be more willing to take risks.
Third, philosophy is not theoretical, it’s practical. This story speaks to me and it helps me and maybe this story speaks to you too. But if not, find your story. Don’t let good ideas just be in the pages of a textbook. Let ideas guide you.
And if you do these things I don’t promise that everything is going to be good (because there’s no such thing), but it will make you wiser.
David writes a column called The Wisdom Project for CNN. It’s a thinking person’s life hacking column in which we examine behavior modification, self-help, found wisdom and applied philosophy. For more stories, go to CNN.com and don’t miss another Wisdom Project column by subscribing here. David G. Allan (twitter: @davidgallan) is Editorial Director for Health and Wellness at CNN.