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Recently I was reading some tweets and blog posts about what is happening at Twitter with Elon Musk firing hundreds/thousands of people and having all the remaining ones working extra hours crunching code and going through all this uncertainty.

Among some commiserating who had been fired, and others sympathising with who still had a job in such a toxic environment, someone mentioned the Parable of the Taoist farmer also known as The story of the Chinese Farmer, or The Maybe parable).

There are many versions – the most widely used, and simpler, goes something like this:

There was once a farmer in ancient China who owned a horse.
“You are so lucky!” his neighbours told him, “to have a horse to pull the cart for you.”
Maybe”, the farmer replied.
One day the horse ran away.
“Oh no! “Such bad luck!” his neighbours cried.
Maybe”, the farmer replied.
A few days later the horse returned, bringing with it six wild horses.
“How fantastic! You are so lucky,” his neighbours told him.
Maybe”, the farmer replied.
The following week his son tried to break one of the horses, and while riding it, he was thrown and broke his leg.
“Oh no! That’s a disgrace!” the neighbours cried.
Maybe”, the farmer replied.
Some time later soldiers came to the village to conscript all the young men into the army. The farmer’s son was left behind because of the broken leg.
“You are so lucky!” his neighbours cried.
Maybe”, the farmer replied.

I loved this story and I also get back to it whenever I am going through hard times or when I tend to get too excited about good ones.

Celebrating – or despairing – too early

When something happens to us, we tend to celebrate if we think that it’s good news, or if we think we just avoided some troubles. Or we sink in self pity and search for commiseration if things went wrong.

Of course we should celebrate when things are doing well, and of course we have the right of be sad and disappointed if things took a turn we did not expect.
But the reality is that we will never know the consequence of misfortune and we will never know the consequence of good fortune.

The point of the commenter on the Twitter layoff was that we can all agree these times are tough and what is happening is shit, but we cannot so easily tell who was lucky or not: those who were fired (and escaped the upcoming hell) or those who kept their job but have to work extra hours under stress and face job insecurity anyway.

That reminded me when some years ago my company underwent a massive wave of layoffs. Some of my best colleagues ( and friends ) had to go (often during these mass layoffs entire projects or departments are shut down and everyone working there is fired – it is not that the most valuable people can be picked and moved to other teams) – I was lucky and kept my job.

Being fired was, of course, devastating for many, but after few weeks or months, most of them found new satisfying jobs, or could spent time working on their pet projects transforming them into successful products.

I was relieved I didn’t lose my job, but was also left in a pretty toxic environment, where people was, at best demotivated, if not openly scorned.
We found ourselves with systems which were still used but not being maintained by anyone ( and again, during such sudden layoffs, there is no hand-over).
We weren’t sure what was the strategy awaiting for us, we weren’t sure that a new wave of layoff could happen even if we worked our ass off.

Would have been better to be fired (and freed)? Maybe.

For about a year after the layoff, we went through many reorganisation stages and I was moved to many different projects and teams – constantly having to get to know the requirements, the legacy code and the people involved.

Would have been better to stick to the same project with the same old colleagues? Maybe.

Switching contexts and teams was tiring and demotivating. But since there were lots of gaps to be filled I had the opportunity to work on different stuff than before, to take on some leadership roles, to face constantly new challenges and get to know many different developers, and different aspects of the company and its products. All that really boosted my personal and professional growth!

To a smaller extent this happened even recently – as a Tech Lead I was assigned to a new project to experiment a few things and evaluate a few ideas – I didn’t quite like the stack and I didn’t want to leave my valued engineers.

Was that a bad circumstance? Maybe.

After taking on the challenge and making it the great opportunity it was learning a shit-ton of stuff and working side by side with cool and skilled people, we were informed that the learnings out of these prototypes were very valuable but the project was going to be shelved.

Just now that I started to really get involved with the people, stopped struggling with the new technology, and was getting excited about how the product was being shaped…
At least I go back to Serverless and Node, which I still like more.

Is it misfortune? Maybe.


As Engineers we talk a lot about Resiliency in the systems we build, but we must remember how important it is the be ourselves resilient in life. It is important to learn how to deal with rejections and failures and how to react, recover and adjust to change.

The Taoist farmer story is important because (as an Italian with hot temperament and some rough edges) it reminds me that resiliency and motivation are just not enough, and I should keep an as even a temperament as possible, learn how to view a specific situation and
most importantly be patient and suspend any judgment.

There are no intrinsic ‘opportunities’ or ‘problems’: there is only what happens and how we choose to respond.

Speculating about what would it be or what it could have been , is useless, and potentially very dangerous for our mental health.

Quoting a masterpiece of philosophy like Kung Fu Panda:

“Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift.
That is why it is called the present.”

Let’s live the day, let’s make of whatever happens an opportunity, let’s have eventually the patience to just wait and see what happens.

This is the most complete and apparently “official” version of the parable ( as much as Wikipedia can be considered an official source ) :

Good luck and bad luck create each other and it is difficult to foresee their change.
A righteous man lived near the border.
For no reason, his horse ran off into barbarian territory.
Everyone felt sorry for him.
But his father spoke to him:
“Who knows if that won’t bring you good luck?”
Several months later his horse came back with a group of [good, noble] barbarian horses.
Everyone congratulated him.
But his father spoke to him:
“Who knows if that won’t bring you bad luck?”
A rich house has good horses and the son mounted with joy.
He fell and broke his leg.
Everyone felt sorry for him.
But his father spoke to him:
“Who knows if that won’t bring you good luck?”
One year later the barbarians invaded across the border.
Adult men strung up their bows and went into battle.
Nine out of ten border residents were killed, except for the son because of his broken leg.
Father and son were protected/both survived.
Hence: Bad luck brings good luck and good luck brings bad luck.
This happens without end and nobody can estimate it.

Photo by SOULSANA on Unsplash