3 Timeless Parables For Regaining Perspective

When things are going well, I am on top of the world. Yet then when bad luck hits or I see others achieving things I wish I could, I get down on myself. It’s at times like these that I refer back to three parables from different cultures that help me regain perspective.


If you are like me, sometimes I am so busy trying to catch up, stay even, or take the lead that I lose perspective. When things are going well, I am on top of the world. Yet then when bad luck hits or I see others achieving things I wish I could, I get down on myself. It’s at times like these that I refer back to three parables from different cultures that have help me better keep my perspective.

Good Luck or Bad Luck? (a Zen koan)

Once upon the time there was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.

“Perhaps,” the farmer replied.

The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “What great luck!” the neighbors exclaimed.

“Perhaps,” replied the old man.

The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.

“Perhaps,” answered the farmer.

The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.

“Perhaps,” said the farmer…

One take-away I have from this parable is that, while we should certainly celebrate when things go well, we should not get carried away. Simultaneously, when bad things happen we should not lose our cool. Life is not only a series of ups and downs but also, some “bad luck” may turn out to be “good luck.”


For example, when my department was laid off many years ago, I was hit pretty hard. Yet in the end, the new position I got led me to better personal and financial rewards and ultimately, to where I am today.

So I have learned it pays to have a sense of equanimity throughout both life’s good and bad times. I also realized that life is not a collection of discrete occurrences or events but that everything we do is linked together; our lives are a series of interconnected days.

I’d Rather Be a Happy Turtle (Chinese)


Zhuang Zi was a brilliant philosopher and strategist who lived in ancient China. His abilities were many and several rulers sought his services. One of them, King Wei, sent his courtiers out to Zhuang Zi’s pastoral home to invite him to come to Wei’s court and be the leader’s chief counselor. They found him there fishing by the river bank.

Seeing his poor situation, they thought Zhuang Zi would jump at the chance for status and reward. Yet when they made their proposal to him, he said, “Once upon a time there was a sacred turtle, which was happy living his life in the mud. Yet, because he was sacred, the king’s men found him, took him to the royal palace, killed him and used his shell to foresee the future. Now tell me, would that turtle prefer to have given up his life to be honored at the palace, or would he rather be alive and enjoying himself in the mud?”

The courtiers responded that, of course, the turtle would be happier in the mud.

To which Zhuang Zi replied, “And so you have my answer. Go home and let me be a happy turtle here in the mud.”

The lesson I take from this parable is that we are often easily bewitched by advancement, fame, and reward. And we are so seduced by it that we trade our most precious resource, time, to get it. And many times, looking back, we are unhappy with the trade-off. So before I take on more, I try and think about if I’d be happier with “fame” or woud I have more fun enjoying my time “in the mud”.

The King and the Pawn (Italian)

This is not a parable per se, but a proverb, short and sweet, namely:


“At the end of the game, the king and the pawn go back in the same box.”

For me there are two messages in this tale. One is that, even though we all hold different ranks, in the end we are all the same. Therefore, I should never take advantage of rank at the expense of another, nor should I allow myself to be taken advantage of or overawed by someone of higher stature.

The other lesson I draw from this proverb is that, in the end, all our achievements and rank should not be overvalued, since in the end, we all “go back in the same box.”

I have found these parables helpful to navigate both my personal and professional life. Hopefully these can be of service to you as well.


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[Image: Flickr user ZeroOne]


About the author

Mark is the author of three books (including the popular Sun Tzu and the Art of Business: Six Principles for Managers) and a Lecturer at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. Prior to that Mark was a marketing executive with experience at IBM and Lenovo