One of my favorite stories is an ancient fable about a farmer in a small village.
One day, the farmer’s only horse ran away.
His neighbors came over to console him, saying “We are so very sorry, this is horrible news! You must feel angry and sad.”
The farmer said “We’ll see. Who can know what’s good and what’s bad?”
The next week, the farmer’s horse returned, this time with a dozen wild horses following behind! The farmer and his son wrangled the horses up.
His neighbors commented, “Wow, what good fortune! How joyful you must feel!”
Again, the farmer said “We shall see. Who can know what’s good and what’s bad?”
The following day, one of the new wild horses trampled the farmer’s son, breaking his legs.
The neighbors then said, “I’m so sorry for you. You must be upset with this terrible happening.”
To which the farmer replied “We shall see. Who can know what’s good and what’s bad?”
Shortly thereafter, the country went to war, and every healthy young man was drafted to fight. But due to his injuries, the farmer’s son was not drafted. It was a horrible war. Almost every soldier died.
The farmer’s neighbors again congratulated him, saying “You must be so happy and relieved that your son did not go to war!”
The farmer replied “We shall see. Who can know what’s good and what’s bad?”
The Power of Perception: Thinking Makes it So
“…there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
~ William Shakespeare, Hamlet
This fable of the farmer is confusing at first. It clashes with the common belief that life’s events carry intrinsic meaning.
Most people think of events in this way. “Certain things are good, and other things are bad. That’s just the way they are.”
In this characterization, there’s a 1:1 relationship between the event and your response.
But as the fable illustrates, the link between an event and your experience is not so cut-and-dry.
Life events in life aren’t imbued with universal meaning. Instead, it’s your interpretation of life’s events that dictates how you feel.
Since all events are up for interpretation, a given life experience could cause you to feel one of many different ways.
The fable gives us an example of this in action. While the neighbors were swept up in the automatic judgements about what is good and bad, the farmer was careful not to get led astray. He knew that every event in life has multiple possible interpretations.
Viewing life with this framing can be uncomfortable. “If life’s events are meaningless, what’s the point?”
The point is this: since life’s events aren’t imbued with universal meaning, you get to choose how you feel about things. You are in control of your life’s narrative!
In this way, you can understand the impact of your mind on daily life. Your mind has shaped, and will continue to shape every experience in your life!
Controlling the Narrative
“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
~ Marcus Aurelius
Choosing your narrative may be one of the greatest skills you can develop in life.
With skill at hand, it doesn’t matter what life throws your way, because you can always choose the most empowering narrative.
This way, your energy is not dictated by the randomness of life’s happening, because you always can always choose a narrative that fills you with energetic aliveness.
This isn’t about fooling yourself by believing something that isn’t true. Nor is it about suppressing negative emotions in pursuit of “positive thinking.”
It’s about understanding that life’s events don’t have a fixed narrative. The perspective you choose dictates your experience, and you always have control over your perspective.
The Challenge With Controlling Your Narrative
Training this skill can be challenging, and takes practice.
That’s because the brain has evolved to processes things automatically. In any given scenario, your brain relies on a variety of heuristics (mental shortcuts) to quickly make sense of what’s going on. It’s a useful process that helps you limit the mental energy needed for navigating daily life.
But this automatic processing is also what causes split-second perceptions about whether something is “good” or “bad”.
Although some of these shortcuts have been conditioned since you were a child, they aren’t set in stone! With conscious effort, you can “reprogram” your mind to interpret things differently.
Mindfulness is a key element in this process.
Perception in Action: Choosing the Empowering Narrative
“It isn’t what you have or who you are or where you are or what you are doing that makes you happy or unhappy. It is what you think about it.”
Developing mindfulness helps you notice when your automatic responses are kicking in. It creates space between events and your reactions.
So, by cultivating regular states of mindful awareness (e.g. meditation) you build the capacity to control your narrative.
Here’s what the process of choosing your narrative looks like in practice:
- Notice when you are getting swept away by an automatic response to a seemingly negative event.
- Pause to collect yourself.
- Let go of your automatic reaction.
- Consider how else you might interpret this event.
- Choose the most empowering narrative.
- Go forth with enthusiasm!
Here are a couple examples to illustrate how this might work in different parts of your life.
- You’re walking home from work and a thunderstorm catches you by surprise…
- Automatic Reaction: Rain is not good! Getting wet is uncomfortable! This is bad!!
- Choosing the Empowering Narrative: That was unexpected! Now that I’m all wet, I realize it’s actually pretty calming and refreshing to be outside in a storm! My clothing gets wet in the wash anyway. It’ll all dry off when I’m home.
- You felt great about your performance in a job interview but don’t get hired for the job…
- Automatic Reaction: This stinks! I really wanted that job. Maybe I’m no good at this after all.
- Choosing the Empowering Narrative: It must not have been a mutual fit! If that’s the case, I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed working there as much as I thought I would. Now I can find a job that’s truly aligned with my values and interests!
- It’s your night to cook dinner, and just when it’s ready, your partner calls and says they’ll be an hour late…
- Automatic Reaction: How disrespectful! Don’t they know how hard I worked to make this meal? And the food’s going to be cold! >:(
- Choosing the Empowering Narrative: That’s no big deal, the food will stay warm in the oven. I can use this time to read that book I’ve been meaning to start. ?
Use the Power of Perception to Live Your Best Life
“Our life is what our thoughts make it.”
~ Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Life really is what you make of it.
When you understand that life’s events don’t carry universal meaning, your enthusiasm and energy are not held captive by the randomness of life’s events.
This isn’t easy at first, because the brain processes most things automatically. Many of your habitual reactions have been conditioned for years.
But when you cultivate mindful awareness, you give yourself the opportunity to catch automatic reactions in their tracks, and pick the most empowering narrative.
Over time, this method of interpretation becomes natural. It’s just the way you see the world.
PS: Before you go, be sure to pick up this free guide I created to help you choose a more empowering narrative.