A Chinese Parable.

Apr 22nd, 2012 | By | Category: abundance, Career advice, career challenges, challenges, focus, opportunity, strategy, tactics


The other day a friend sent me a Chinese parable that I think is worth sharing. It illustrates several concepts we experience in our thinking and careers. When you read my paraphrased short version of the parable think of situations, which you faced that parallel the parable. In addition, there are three people involved in the story take some time to think of what you would have done if you were in each of their positions.

Once there was a poor famer who was deeply in dept to a tyrannical warlord. The warlord came to the farmer and demanded payment, which he knew the farmer could not pay. The warlord had an alterative motive for calling in the famer’s debt at a time he knew the farmer could not pay. The farmer had a beautiful daughter that the warlord wanted for a bride. The warlord offer the option of canceling the debt in exchange for the daughter, or the warlord would take the farm. The farmer did not want to loose his farm, and he consulted with the daughter who did not want to marry the warlord. Now there is a dilemma for all involved. The daughter does not want to see her father loose the farm, but does not want to marry the warlord. The farmer is faced with loosing either his daughter or his farm; and the warlord who would have to except the money or the farm in payment of the debt, really wants the daughter and is only using the debt as ploy. It does seem that the warlord has the most power, but may come away without what he wants most, the daughter, but will not loose no matter which decision the farmer makes. The farmer seems to have the power of choosing between his daughter and his farm, but will loose no matter which choice he makes. The daughter is a pawn and a prize, and seems to have no power what so ever.

The farmer told the warlord, “I know I owe you money and you have the right to demand payment, but it is impossible for me to choose.” The warlord who was more experienced in these matters proposed a solution. I will place a black stone and a white stone in an empty moneybag. Your daughter can reach into the bag and pick a stone. If she pulls the white stone, you can keep both your daughter and I will cancel the debt you owe me. If she pulls the black stone I get your daughter. The farmer thought he had no other options and agreed. The warlord try to divert the attention of the farmer and the daughter as he bent to pick up the two stones to place in the bag by asking the farmer a question about a building on the farm. The farmer turned to look at the building, but the daughter stayed focused on the warlord and the stones hoping to detect a difference in size or shape that would enable her to pick the white stone without looking. Instead she saw the warlord pick up two black stones and place them in the bag. No matter which stone she picked she would have to go with the warlord. Now the daughter appears to have some powerful knowledge that the warlord is cheating, but she knows it would be death for and perhaps her father if she confronted the warlord. Her fate seemed sealed. She had but a single option, to pull a stone from the bag, and her fate would be determined for the rest of her life, the farmer would stand-by helplessly and watch as he lost his daughter.

The daughter closed her eyes and reached into the bag. She felt each stone as if trying to select the one that would win her freedom. Finally she selected a stone, but as she pulled it from the bag she dropped it before anyone could see the color. Once the stone was on the ground there was no way to tell which stone was pulled white or black. Now there was a decided power shift. The daughter apologized for her clumsiness, and said there was really no harm done. They could just look at the remaining stone to determine the color she had drawn. The warlord could not argue with the logic, and had to agree lest he be caught in his scheme to cheat the farmer. So even though he was unscrupulous he could be publicly be found to be a cheat. So by thinking beyond the apparent options the farmer’s daughter, who had no real say in the matter, decided her own favorable outcome.

There are many lessons to be learned from this story. The first and foremost is that when faced with a seemly impossible problem there are always favorable solutions. Another is not to let your opponent set the options or parameters, or if he does think beyond them. A third and important lesson is that even though the daughter knew the warlord was cheating she could not directly use that information to confront him, but employed it subtly against him. Often employees feel because their boss has stepped out of bounds that they can prevail by confronting him. Not always the case. Had the daughter accused the warlord of cheating he would have killed or imprisoned both the farmer and the daughter. Be skillful on how you use special or secret knowledge. Going public is not the panacea against management it seems to be. They still hold a lot of the power. One of the most important and often missed lessons was the daughter’s ability to stay focused under duress. Often when faced with an impossible situation we loose our focus. The story would have had a much different ending, if like the farmer, the daughter had been distracted by her adversary.

This parable like most others is very intricate and more and more facets reveal themselves as you think analytically about it. This type of critical thinking is important to meet the challenges and seemly impossible situations in the workplace.

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