How do we know if something is good or bad?

I would like to relate a parable that may shift your thinking on this question. I first heard this story when I watched a Ted talk by Heather Lanier a few weeks ago. Since then I have been pondering the meaning behind the story.  I’ve even told it to a few coaching clients when they were talking about things in their own lives that were good or bad. The resulting discussions revealed new insight for both of us.

In researching this parable, I discovered many variations; however, the version I first heard goes something like this …

The Parable of the Farmer

One day a farmer went to inspect his paddock only to find that his only horse had escaped. The farmer’s neighbours came to console him. “Your horse escaped. That’s bad”, they said. The farmer’s reply, “Good or bad? Hard to say.”

The next day the farmer’s horse came back followed by seven wild horses. The farmer’s neighbours were very happy for him. “You have seven new horses now. That’s good”, they said. The farmer again replied, “Good or bad? Hard to say.”

On the third day, the farmer’s son tried to ride one of the wild horses. After a few attempts, he fell off and broke his leg. Again, the neighbours visited the farmer. “That’s bad,” they said. Again, the farmer replied, “Good or bad? Hard to say.”

On the fourth day, the army marched past the farmer’s land. They were drafting young, able-bodied men for an impending war. Seeing the farmer’s son with a broken leg, they passed by. The neighbours commented, “That’s good that your son will not have to fight.” The farmer again replied, “Good or bad? It’s hard to say.”

What does it all mean?

Sometimes we are very quick to label the events in our life as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.  What I think this story is trying to tell us is that we need to let events unfold before we make a judgement. I have previously written about taking the longer term view when looking into the past and measuring our achievements. Perhaps now it’s time to take the longer view forward.

We all have a lot of complexity in our lives. ‘Black or white’, ‘right or wrong’, or ‘good or bad’ thinking may limit our ability to understand the nuances of that complexity and deal with it effectively. On any given day there will be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ things that happen to us. When this happens, perhaps we should take a moment and ask ourselves, “Good or bad? Hard to say.”


Do you tend to think of events in your life in terms of ‘good’ or ‘bad’? If so I would encourage you to reflect on what this story might mean for you. Please share your reflections in the comments section below.

If you know someone who tends to think in concrete terms, please feel free to share this story with them. Think about how you might use this story to coach them through a particular issue they are struggling with at the moment.

If you would like to discuss this or any issue relating to leadership, culture or being human in a complex world, please feel free to contact me at Campbell Leadership Solutions.

Until then, thank you for reading and leading.

Image courtesy of Alexas_Fotos on Pixabay