Once upon a time in China there was a farmer. One day the door to the barn was accidentally left open and the horse escaped. All of the other farmer’s neighbors, upon hearing of this loss, decried the horrible luck that the farmer had. The farmer simply replied with: “Perhaps.”
Many days later, the horse returned, followed by a whole herd of wild horses. The farmer and his son quickly rounded them all up and closed and latched the gate. The neighbors, upon hearing the commotion, stopped by to take a look. The loudly celebrated the change in the fortunes of the farmer. They exclaimed: “What good luck you have!”. The farmer quietly replied: “Perhaps.”
Days and weeks passed and soon the farmer’s son was out attempting to train one of the wild horses. The horse bucked wildly, throwing the son into the dirt and breaking his leg. Over the next few days the injury worsened as infection set in, with a high fever causing the son to ramble incoherently. Upon seeing the visits from the doctor the neighbors gathered and again asserted: “You have the worst luck!”. The farmer calmly replied: “Perhaps.”
Around that same time, elsewhere in China, a war broke out between two rival groups. As the war spread, a captain visited the village to forcefully enlist young men to fight. When the captain stopped at the house of the farmer he found the farmer’s son with a broken leg and a delirious fever. With no ability to stand and walk or even follow basic orders, the captain moved on without enlisting the young man. Days later, upon hearing that the fever had broken and that he was returning to good health, the neighbors massed around the farmer and his son, toasting to the amazing luck they had in the son not being dragged off to war. Upon hearing this the farmer shrugged and unreservedly said: “Perhaps.”
There are many interpretations of this Chinese Taoist Farmer tale. One deconstruction of this fable can be done through the lens of the workplace. The event surrounding the farmer provide an insightful analogy to the modern workplace. There are positives and negatives, ups and downs. Successes and failures. The amnesia-inducing philosophy of “what have you done for me lately” can be seen reflected in the continually updating opinions from the neighbors of the farmer. These reactions are purely perceptual and carry no weight of remembrance to the events leading up to the current (mis)fortune being observed.
The farmer himself represents an idyllic figure, one that we would all like to have on our team. This would also be an amazing person to follow and learn from as a mentor. This is the type of person that stays calm and centered, no matter the noisy ups and downs in the environment around them.
The only umbrage that I can summon against the farmer is a perceived lack of emotional intelligence to the events swirling around him. This may be merely due to the structure of a fable — providing an over-simplified message through a singular story with one dimensional characters. Yet the implications of a stoic and unyielding farmer persist in my mind after reading this story multiple times. Was there no exclamation of emotion and feeling upon observing his own son with a broken leg upon the fall from the horse? What about a fearful acceptance of an authority figure into his home with the stated power to enlist that son into a battle that could end his life?
While the core essence of the farmer presents a conceptual locus of calm, understanding, and acceptance that would be an ideal template to follow as a leader in the workplace, the practical limitations around emotion and the sheer variability in events and perceptions put this goal high on a lofty pedestal.
In other words, the farmer presents a quintessential example of the state of mind that, while difficult to achieve, would epitomize an ideal mindset in an organization.
To lead people, walk beside them … As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence. The next best, the people honor and praise. The next, the people fear; and the next, the people hate … When the best leader’s work is done the people say, ‘We did it ourselves!‘
Lao-Tsu — founder of philosophical Taoism (per wikipedia)
It would be an interesting thought experiment to explore and expand the fable. How would the neighbors react to the farmers responses? Would they be influenced by the simple acceptance? Would they honor and praise the leadership shown? Or would they carry that messaging back to their own homes and conduct it forward in their own lives without recognizing where that ideal had originated?
I need to take a moment here and admit something. It has taken me a long time in my career to even recognize the value and significance of a calm and rational approach to the workplace, let alone practice this methodology. I have spent more than my fair share of time riding the luck roller coaster like the neighbors in the fable. It is very easy to ride, following the highs and the lows, while working hard to hit more highs. Unfortunately, this methodology never seems to acknowledge that what goes up must come down.
The farmer’s attitude presents a different approach: the the calm centrist approach that smooths out the peaks and raises the valleys. It may not be as exciting, but at the end of the day the sense of peace and fulfillment is definitely worth the effort. In working to achieve this office zen, there are many tools that can be leveraged to follow this path. One of those tools is called out in the quote by Lao-Tsu above:
Just go for a walk.
We all have time during our day that we can get away for a few minutes. Years ago many people would escape for minutes here and there for smoke breaks, but even at today’s frantic pace of business there is always time and space to get out and move around for a few minutes. Lunch breaks, bathroom breaks, quietly slipping away when a few moments of peace are needed. A walk can be up and down the sidewalk, around the parking lot, or at a nearby park. It requires nothing more than the space to move and a change of scenery.
There are a large number of benefits that can be gleaned from this few minutes of exercise. The first of these is simply getting away from the antagonists and problems that feel stressful. That simple separation can do wonders for the outlook for the remainder of the day along with a vast number of other mental and physical benefits to some simple exercise that can be found in a quick stroll.
Walking provides space to analyze interactions and events
Bad interaction? Frustrating meeting? Difficult coding problem? Taking a stroll for a few minutes can provide some much needed relief. Reviewing the recent interplay in a different environment while moving can help to drain away the emotion and allow the focus to be on the relevant substance.
According to an article from Harvard Health Publishing, using large muscle groups in a rhythmic, repetitive manner is one of the best ways to clear the mind and reduce stress. The article calls walking: “muscular meditation“. The author summarizes the negative feelings that are addressed through exercise in one word: stress.
Stress comes in many forms and produces many symptoms. Mental symptoms range from worry and irritability to restlessness and insomnia, anger and hostility, or sensations of dread, foreboding, and even panic.
Mental stress can also produce physical symptoms. Muscles are tense, resulting in fidgetiness, taut facial expressions, headaches, or neck and back pain… The physical symptoms of stress are themselves distressing. In fact, the body’s response to stress can feel so bad that it produces additional mental stress. During the stress response, then, mind and body can amplify each other’s distress signals, creating a vicious cycle of tension and anxiety.
Exercising to relax from Harvard Health Publishing
The messaging is clear — the simple act of walking after a stressful event at work can provide lets of beneficial mental and physical relief to those feelings and frustrations. Going for a walk can even be considered to be the physically meditative counterpart to the mental contemplation that one undergoes while walking and relaxing.
Walking boosts your mood
Physiologically, walking increases blood flow to the brain. Physically changing your environment from an enclosed indoor space to a limitless outdoor space can do wonders for both mood and perception. It doesn’t matter if it is sunny or cloudy, rainy or dry. Walking provides an opportunity for different mental stimulation
If possible, find a accomplice in escape to share the walk with. “Choose a fun walking companion who can distract you from the things causing your stress. Let them entertain you and bring out your happy side. Play on the playgrounds you might pass by. Be silly. Have fun.” (from: How Walking Can Boost Your Mood and Reduce Stress)
The goal in moving around for a few minutes is to change your state of mind. If you are happy, then walk with the ambition to bring a bigger smile to your face. If you are stressed or frustrated, then walk with the goal of finding a calmer, more positive head space that will help you get through the rest of the day. Either way, the natural solutions are in place to allow for a short walk lift your mood.
Walking boosts creativity by up to 81 percent
This is not just a theory — walking can help you be more creative. In one study on the positive effect of walking on creating thinking, walking outside was shown to produce “the most novel and highest quality analogies” for the test but in every experiment performed, the person up, moving and walking performed better by percentages ranging from 23% to 81%.
All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking
-philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche
You might be a cerebral person, having to concentrate on something at a deep level to understand it. Or, you could be the type of person that allows a thought to flourish in the background until your subconscious mind practically screams at you that the seedling of an idea has blossomed into the flower of a solution. Walking gives you the space for either of these methods. “It gives you time to consider different aspects of your problems away from the distractions of your office or home.” (from: How Walking Can Boost Your Mood and Reduce Stress)
The best part is that we aren’t talking about a big 45–60 minute event here. A psychological study performed at Iowa State university puts the number at 12. It only takes twelve minutes “for walking to work its mood-brightening magic… even without traditional happiness factors like sunshine, nature, social contact, and uptempo music” (from: Walking THIS Number of Minutes Will Boost Your Mood, According to New Science)
Walking is healthy
If nothing else, walking is simply good for you. In an office environment we tend to sit for long periods of the day. There are quite a few scientifically validated physical benefits to brief daily walks:
- Burning calories– For a 204lb human, even a leisurely 2.0mph can burn 41 calories in a 12 minute de-stress walk. That equates to burning off a whole pound every 49 days, or nearly 7.5lbs per year
- Better Heart Health– Walking reduces the changes for coronary heart disease with: “approximately 30 min of normal walking a day for 5 days a week was associated with 19% CHD risk reduction” (from: Quantifying the dose-response of walking in reducing coronary heart disease risk: meta-analysis)
- Deeper Sleep– “The only study that looked at the effects of a single exercise session found that a bout of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise (e.g., walking) reduced the time it took to fall asleep and increased the length of sleep of people with chronic insomnia compared to a night in which they did not exercise” from: How does exercise help those with chronic insomnia?)
- Live Longer– taking a brisk walk can help you to live longer. In a study targeting people with different BMI levels, it was consistently found that “Brisk walkers were found to have longer life expectancies” (from: Comparative Relevance of Physical Fitness and Adiposity on Life Expectancy)
Walking isn’t just physically healthy, it can help mental health as well. In the study mentioned above where it takes just twelve minutes to change someone’s mood, they note that “the experiments demonstrate that incidental ambulation systematically promotes positive affect regardless of the focus on such movement, and that it can override the effects of other emotionally relevant events such as boredom and dread“. In other words, walking increases your mood whether you want it to or not and this effect is achieved even if you expect the opposite! (from: Walking facilitates positive affect)
The next time you are at work and you find yourself facing either an incredibly lucky or an extremely unlucky occurrence, consider stepping back and going for a walk. Reflect on the event and the steps that brought you to that point. There are always things to learn: what did we do wrong to get to this point? Or: what did we do right that we could keep doing going forward. Maybe if you take this time and spend this energy for a brisk walk you will find yourself in a happier, healthier place looking back at your co-workers while they lament or cheer the latest affairs affecting the business with the corner of your mouth turned up and a twinkle in your eye as you quietly state: “Perhaps.”
Thanks for reading!
Originally published at kevinwanke.com on January 13, 2020. Kevin’s blog focuses on advice for new Engineers and for Engineering Managers.