Foundational Thinking

The Parable of the Chinese Farmer

There’s an old Chinese parable dating as far back as the 2nd century B.C. about an old Taoist farmer who lost his horse.  The name the parable is traditionally known by is “The Parable of the Chinese Farmer,” or, alternatively, “The man who lost his horse.” The story originates from a collection of old Chinese philosophical essays known as the Huainanzi.  The parable itself speaks toward the old Taoist view of “fate” and the importance of maintaining a humble view of the ever-unfolding details of our experiences, recognizing that what we perceive at first to be, say, a streak of “good fortune” (or, to speak in a biblical category, we can say what we perceive to be a “blessing”) may turn out not to be, and what we initially perceive to be “misfortune,” or a curse, may, in fact, prove, in the end, to be a blessing. The story goes like this:
“Once upon a time there was a Chinese farmer whose horse ran away. That evening, all of his neighbors visited him to commiserate, saying, “We’re so sorry to hear your horse has run away.  This is most unfortunate.” To which the farmer simply replied, “Maybe.”  The next day the horse came back bringing seven wild horses with it, and in the evening, everybody came back and said, “Oh, what luck!  What a great turn of events. You now have eight horses!”  The farmer again simply said, “Maybe.” The following day the man’s son tried to break one of the wild horses, and while riding it, he was thrown and broke his leg. The neighbors came again and said, “Oh dear, we’re so sorry to hear about your son’s leg.  That’s truly unfortunate.”  The farmer simply responded, “Maybe.” The next day an enlistment officer came to the farm looking to draft young men into the army, and upon seeing the boy’s broken leg, he left the farm allowing the boy to stay with his father.  Again all the neighbors came around and said, “How lucky you are that you can keep your son!  Isn’t that great!” Again, the farmer simply said, “Maybe.”"
The story ends with that leaving the reader wondering how it will all turn out from there.  Though things seem to end on a positive note, the point is who’s to say there won’t be some other twist in the unfolding plot-line of the farmer’s life that may reveal the boy’s ability to stay at home with his father instead of being recruited into military service wasn’t the best thing that could have happened.  We just don’t know. Until the final sentence of the great novel that is our life has been written, we don’t ultimately know the full impact of all our decisions and our experiences. It reminds me of how Aristotle once said that young people, because of their youth, cannot truly know happiness because, as he says, what is needed to be happy is, not only complete virtue but also a complete life, since many changes occur in life, and all manner of changes, and the most prosperous may fall into great misfortunes in old age.” The reverse could also be true.  A young person should not assume his life or a particular season of his life is necessarily as bad as it seems.  Give it a little time and you may discover it’s all leading to a much greater benefit.  Be patient.  Be humble.  I would even say, have faith in the great plan of providence to unfold the way it is intended to unfold. Of course, I would argue, the best way of thinking about providence isn’t to be found in the old writings of Taoist or Aristotelian philosophers but in the inspired counsel of God’s Word, the Bible.  Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”  Philippians 1:6 says, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” There are so many verses we could point to—so many examples of biblical figures we could talk about.  There are men like Job who lost everything through a series of incredibly tragic events but later, by the end of the story in Job 42:12, the Lord, quote, “blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning." Or, there's men like Joseph whose brothers conspired to throw him in a pit in the wilderness to be left for dead, only to decide instead to sell him into slavery to make a profit, resulting in him relocating to Egypt, leading to his advancing in favor in Pharoah’s kingdom, earning a high rank, and saving the entire region, including his own brothers, from starvation during a famine.  Later reflecting on his whole experience, Jospeh would say, speaking to his brothers, “What you meant for evil against me, God has meant for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” There’s the story of Esther, the story of Ruth, the story of David, and on and on—all modeling God’s work through apparent misfortunate to bring about abundant blessing for his people. And I do want to emphasize, the promise of God’s providence working out for good is reserved specifically for God’s people.  Again, Romans 8:28 says, …all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”  Those are believers, chosen and redeemed to glorify the Lord. That’s not to say God isn’t providentially working out an end story for unbelievers too, because he is.  However, we can’t describe the end story for those folks as “good.”  However well they may seem to have it now, we’re told, things for them eventually take a nasty turn, as things culminate at a great White Throne of Judgement, Revelation 20. In the end, we have to trust God’s plan of providence to run its course, and in the process, I would say, we need to trust in God’s plan of redemption too, understanding, it all turns out for good for those who are called, and, practically, for those who answer the call, of his saving purpose, which relates to the great Gospel message. So, as you go about your own life story, like the old Chinese farmer, encountering gains and losses, progress and setbacks, all I can say to those spectators out there who want to judge your circumstances as either great fortune or terrible misfortune, all I’ll simply say to them is, “Maybe.” We need to see where the Lord takes it from here.   So, be humble.  Be patient.  Trust God.

The Flywheel and the Secret to Success

There’s a popular business-book that was written in the early 2000’s that is still considered to be one of the best books of its genre related to leadership and management in the workplace.  The book is called “Good to Great” by Jim Collins and focuses on many of the key factors, according to the author and his research team’s analysis, that influence the rise of successful companies. Though a lot of its data is a bit outdated at this point, the principles it points to are still very much relevant today and, perhaps, even timeless.  I know I’ve personally benefited from the principles discussed in the book, not only on a self-management and family-management level, but also in my years at the office, pastoring at the church, in my time as the president of a local non-profit, and now as a small business owner out here on the homestead. By the way, if there are any fellow farm owners out there (whether your operation is large or small), you have an arena to manage and can benefit from business books like the one I’m referencing here.  The same factors that make big corporations and board room executives successful can apply to farmers and home business owners as well.
There’s a lot of good information from the book I can give you, but one chapter that’s been on my mind recently is called “The Flywheel and the Doomloop.”  The main idea having to do with the importance of “momentum” to any successful business and the need to apply consistent, dedicated effort in order to build that momentum and ultimately be successful.  You’ve got to have momentum in order to take off.   Collins writes, quote:
“Picture a huge, heavy flywheel—a massive metal disk mounted horizontally on an axle, about 30 feet in diameter, 2 feet thick, and weighing about 5,000 pounds. Now imagine that your task is to get the flywheel rotating on the axle as fast and long as possible. Pushing with great effort, you get the flywheel to inch forward, moving almost imperceptibly at first. You keep pushing and, after two or three hours of persistent effort, you get the flywheel to complete one entire turn. You keep pushing, and the flywheel begins to move a bit faster, and with continued great effort, you move it around a second rotation. You keep pushing in a consistent direction.  Three turns ... four ... five ... six ... the flywheel builds up speed ... seven ... eight ... you keep pushing ... nine ... ten ... it builds momentum ... eleven ... twelve ... moving faster with each turn … twenty … thirty … fifty … a hundred. Then, at some point—breakthrough!  The momentum of the thing kicks in your favor, hurling the flywheel forward, turn after turn ... whoosh! ... its own heavy weight working for you. You're pushing no harder than during the first rotation, but the flywheel goes faster and faster.  Each turn of the flywheel builds upon work done earlier, compounding your investment of effort. A thousand times faster, then ten thousand, then a hundred thousand. The huge heavy disk flies forward, with almost unstoppable momentum.  Now suppose someone came along and asked, "What was the one big push that caused this thing to go so fast?" You wouldn't be able to answer; it’s just a nonsensical question. Was it the first push? The second? The fifth? The hundredth? No! It was all of them added together in an overall accumulation of effort applied  matter how large—reflects a small fraction of the entire cumulative effect upon the flywheel.” “Good-to-great transformations never happened in one fell swoop. There was no single defining action, no grand program, no one killer innovation, no solitary lucky break, no wrenching revolution. Good to great comes about by a cumulative process—step by step, action by action, decision by decision, turn by turn of the flywheel—that adds up to sustained and spectacular results.”
In other words, if you’re hoping to be successful at whatever it is you’re undertaking—whether that’s running a Fortune 500 company or running a little produce stand at your local farmer’s market—you’ve got to push forward persistently, progressively, and patiently.  You’ve got to keep at it.  You’ve got to keep pushing the flywheel. It’s not that one push is more important than another, but it is the consistency and accumulative effect and inertia of your efforts that will ultimately pay off.  It’s the discipline and perseverance of doing what you do—and doing it well, by the way—that will make the difference. Don’t expect success after only two or three spins.  If you really want the kind of momentum that begins to practically spin itself, you’ve got to do what it takes on the front end and you’ve got to keep doing that until you’ve built up the speed you need. I know there are so many people out there who fail at what they attempt simply because they get discouraged and burned out because they don’t see the results they’re looking for in a couple few weeks, or in a few short months.  So, they let off the steam and lose the momentum they’ve built and come to a screeching halt.  I’ve seen it happen so many times. Jim Collins observes that for most successful companies, “the buildup-to-breakthrough” process usually takes several years.  It may take two years, five years, ten years of dedicated, consistent effort. At the time I’m writing this, my wife have been faithfully working at our homestead now for a little over 10 years.  I can tell you, it’s taken that amount of time for us to really feel the momentum. Collins quotes several successful executives who all say practically the same thing: One man explained, “There was no one magical event, no one turning point.  It was a combination of things.  More of an evolution, though the end results were dramatic.” Another stated, “It’s impossible to think of one big thing that would exemplify [our] shift from good to great because our success was evolutionary as opposed to revolutionary, building success upon success.  I don’t know that there was any single event.” Still another said, “There was no seminal meeting or epiphany moment, no one big bright light that came on like a lightbulb.  It was sort o f an evolution thing.”  End quote.So, it’s the principle of the flywheel.  Yes, it can takes a lot of energy to get things spinning.  But, friends, the good news is, once things have started to really spin, it usually doesn’t take as much energy to keep it spinning. For all of those who feel you’re still in the momentum building stage on whatever goal it is you’re working towards, I just want to encourage you.  Don’t stop pushing the flywheel.  Don’t reduce the steam to your engine.  It’s only a matter of time before things will take off. Or as Jim Collins puts it, “If you continue to push in a consistent direction…accumulating momentum step by step and turn by turn, you will eventually reach breakthrough.  It might not happen today, or tomorrow, or next week.  It might not even happen next year.  But it will happen.”
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