The Chinese Farmer, Kipling, Marcus Aurelius, and You

“I’ve come back. Give me a drink, Brother Kipling. Don’t you know me?” – The Man Who Would Be King


Kipling in 1895.  Good heavens, what a handsome mustache!  No wonder the English ruled most of the world – any group that can create such handsome whiskers deserves to run the place.

I first heard this from a friend in 2002 or so . . . there were several of us that would get together to talk about ideas and concepts, and one of the participants told this story:

There is an old Chinese story about a farmer.  One night, there was a terrible storm.  The wind blew so hard, it opened up his corral, and his horses got out.

“Bad luck!” said his friends.

“Good luck, bad luck.  Who can say?” replied the farmer.

The next week, his horses, lonely for home, came back.  But while they were loose, they got in with a group of wild horses.  The wild horses came home with them.  The farmer now had twice as many horses.

“Good luck!” said his friends.

“Good luck, bad luck.  Who can say?” replied the farmer.

A wild horse is good to no one, so the farmer’s son began to work on breaking the horses.  Most of them were no problem, but one particularly fierce horse bucked the farmer’s son off.  The farmer’s son broke his leg.

“Bad luck!” said his friends.

“Good luck, bad luck.  Who can say?” replied the farmer.

The next week, the Emperor, having decided to go off to war due to a very dangerous threat against the empire, marched with his troops through the farmer’s town.  They called up in a draft all of the able bodied young men to accompany them to war.  The farmer’s son could not go – his leg was broken.

I think you can see where this is going.

But the story does stop there (thankfully!), though you see that it could keep going indefinitely, probably ending up with the farmer’s son constructing an evil robot army to enslave the human race that ends up saving us instead by stopping the invasion of the mole people from below South Carolina.  Oops!  I think that’s the plot of the sequel to Pacific Rim.

pacific rim

Source:  Uproxx, by porkythefirst

Despite my firm belief in the power of self-determination, even I’ve got to admit that sometimes you just have no idea how an action will impact your future – what will the result be of a decision you make today.  Opposite effects aren’t unknown.

For example, brush your teeth every day in order to keep them longer, right?  Well, at one point they used abrasives in toothpaste in order to scrub off that yellow tint that evolves over time.  Unfortunately, over time you weren’t brushing your teeth – you were sanding them down to nubs.

That’s an extreme example, but here’s another:

You work really hard at your job.  You’re smart, and come up with innovations to make things work a little bit better.  Your boss notices, but so does his boss.  Rocket ship to the top, right?  I mean, at least a promotion?

No.  Your boss is lazy and scared that he’ll lose his job.  The last thing they want to see is you breaking the curve at work.  He is now focused on . . . . getting rid of you.  Again, the opposite of what you’d expect, and the opposite of what your work merits.

Which brings me to this:


by Rudyard Kipling

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too.
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster,
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make a heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

I am an unapologetic Kipling fan.  And in this poem is more good philosophy than you’ll find anywhere.  Well, anywhere but here.

At a certain point, you realize that you’re not going to be a trillionaire.  Or even a billionaire.  You have to settle for what you’ve done and not feel regret that you’ve not transformed the world entirely.  In reading history, it wasn’t just one of the best poets ever to live who understood that, but also, over a thousand years earlier people understood it.

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”  Pretty cool statement.  From?  A frigging Roman Emperor, Caesar Marcus Aurelius.  I’ve mentioned him before.  His book, Meditations was something he wrote for himself.  He didn’t write it for other people to read to see what a smarty-pants he was.  No, these were his private thoughts.

And as Caesar, he had more power than most people on Earth have ever had.  And he still worried about stuff.  He worried about doing a good job.  His back hurt him.  He worried that he wasn’t being a good dad (he wasn’t – his son was horrible and was destined to be played by Joaquin Phoenix – a curse of history).

But Marcus, the unnamed Chinese farmer, and Rudyard all had it tuned into the same thing – we can’t understand exactly what the outcome will be.  We can only go out there and do our best – break the horse, fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds of distance run, or do our best to run the most complex civilization ever devised.

So, today’s your day.  Go out there, and run as hard as you can.  Maybe, just maybe, one day you can have a mustache that will rival Kipling . . . .

Author: John

Nobel-Prize Winning, MacArthur Genius Grant Near Recipient writing to you regularly about Fitness, Wealth, and Wisdom – How to be happy and how to be healthy. Oh, and rich.

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