How to stop wasting energy worrying at work (the story of the farmer)

written by  Ryan Seamons

It can be easy to invest a lot of energy into the daily ups and downs. It’s exciting and feels productive. Here’s a story I recently found that helped me see a different approach we can take.

The story of the farmer

Once upon a time there was a Chinese farmer whose horse ran away. That evening, all of his neighbors 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 horses, and while riding it, he was thrown and broke his leg. The neighbors 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 neighbors came around and said, “Isn’t that great!” Again, he said, “Maybe.”

It can be tempting to invest our energy in immediate happenings. But usually, we don’t know how things will turn out. We can’t see the larger picture in the moment.

One of the worst experiences I had at work was being told that I wasn’t good enough to do the job I currently had. I remember walking out of that conversation feeling angry and scared. Looking back, this may have been one of the most positively influential moments in my career. So much of the success I’ve experienced after that moment came because I ended up investing deeply in my own development to prove to myself and my boss they were wrong.

Is it good? Is it bad? Maybe. We’ll see.

Questions to consider

Questions you can consider about your reaction to news, good or bad, at work:

  • What are you worried about at work? List events that you’ve invested energy into this past week.
  • Which of those worries are out of your control? Think about how much you actually control each worry.
  • What can you do to address real issues? If you can influence an event, plan meaningful change. If you can’t do anything about it, give yourself permission to worry less.

About the Author

Ryan Seamons
writes about more human approaches to modern management.

Join Patterns for weekly ideas about making work better.

Also check out Manager School to become a better manager.