Before I had entered law school, I decided to take up a sales job to make some extra cash. During one of the daily prep talks, a man dressed in a brown-grey custom-fitted pin-striped suit stood before us in the center of the room. He looked at all us all, Alec Baldwin style (without the anger), and gave a speech.

“I’ve been doing this for over ten years, and I can see myself in a lot of you.  I remember when I graduated college. I didn’t have any direction. I had several maxed out credit cards. Next week, I’m going to Aruba with my fiancé. I know it can seem really intimidating from your position, since you have years of hard and uncertain work ahead of you, full of good times and bad.”

He cleared his throat, and walked to the back of the room.

“I’d like to share a story I learned when I was first starting out, and I’ve kept with me to this day.  It taught me how to stay in the game.”

A boy in ancient China traveled into the mountains each day to fetch fresh water for his family. He would ride his horse to a small spring in the mountains, fill up his buckets, and ride back down to his family’s farm.

One day the boy was attacked by bandits along the road, and he lost his horse. He went back home to share the news with his family.

When the rest of the village found out what happened to the horse, everyone said, “That poor family, that poor boy. How unfortunate! What will they do without a horse?” But the father of the family just shrugged his shoulders and said,

“Is this a good thing, or is this a bad thing?”

In the following days and months, the boy went into the mountains with his younger brother to fetch water. The work was grueling and required several trips. This continued for several months until, one day, they came across a pack of wild horses. The boy thought of a way to trap a horse, and he and his brother caught one.

When the rest of the village found out about the new horse, everyone said, “What incredible fortune! Oh, how we wish we could have another horse for free!” But the father of the family simply shrugged and said,

“Is this a good thing, or is this a bad thing?”


After taming the new horse, the boy resumed his daily fetching of water. He grew fond of his horse and acquired fresh water without issue. However, during one trip into the mountains, a storm began to grow. The boy was too far from home and the storm raged. A bright lighting and loud thunder shook the nearby trees and startled the horse. The horse kicked back in fear, and threw the boy onto some rocks, breaking his arm.

When the rest of the village found out about the boy’s injury, everyone said, “That poor boy! That poor family! What will they do with one less hand on the farm? Surely they will suffer!” But the father just shrugged his shoulders and said,

“Is this a good thing, or is this a bad thing?”

After two weeks had passed, the boy went into the mountains, with only one good arm. Fetching water was slow and tedious.

But in the ensuing weeks, the local warlords of China grew furious with each other. War came. The general of the region came into the boy’s village and recruited all males over the age of fourteen. But when he saw the boy he said, “Oh, this one has a broken arm. He will be of no use to us.” He left the boy behind.

Everyone in the village said, “What extreme fortune! Their boy was spared! Oh how we wish we could keep our sons.”

But the father of the family shrugged and said,

“Is this a good thing, or is this a bad thing?”

The salesman stood silent for ten seconds, then he spoke:

“And so the moral of the story is to stay humble and never consider anything a success or a failure.  When I close a deal worth tens of thousands, I ask myself, “Is this a good thing, or is this a bad thing?  When the day goes by and I haven’t made a sale, I ask, “Is this a good thing or a bad thing?”

Accept that you do not know the future, and don’t get too carried away by the ups and downs of the job.”

As the salesman left the room, I could see that the message had fallen on mostly deaf ears.  I left that job, but I took the story with me.  Every time something happens, and I feel uncertain, I always ask myself that question.

Although I have never been able to answer, here I remain in the game.

Read Next: The Foundations of Value, Part I

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