“The Farmer’s Luck in Silicon Valley”

mountain path

On February 19, Facebook announced that they were buying the startup WhatsApp for a total value of $19 billion dollars, making this an astonishingly large acquisition of a 5-year old company with only 55 employees.  I have my own opinions about the acquisition. But what fascinates me is that both of the co-founders of WhatsApp – Jan Koum and Brian Acton – were earlier rejected when they applied for jobs at Facebook, back in 2009. (In fact, Acton was also rejected when he applied to Twitter that same year.) I would imagine that both Koum and Acton were sad or disappointed when Facebook did not hire them. After all, most people don’t bother interviewing with a company unless they want to work there.

But this “bad news” for Koum and Acton led directly to something which has turned out to be “far better”. If Koum or Acton had gotten hired by Facebook in 2009, it’s hard to imagine that either one of them would have ever been able to do anything as impactful by working inside of Facebook. Five years later, they’ve delighted a couple hundred million consumers, and built a wildly successful company. (In full disclosure, I personally know Brian Acton, as well as Sequoia Capital Partner Jim Goetz, who was the only venture capitalist given the opportunity to invest in the company.)

The reality of Koum and Acton turning defeat into victory reminds me of “the Farmer’s Luck” story, which I love to tell as part of my Happiness Workshop, entitled “Work, Life and Death for Professionals – an Insider’s Journey to Happiness”.  It’s the tale of a farmer in China, long ago. One day the farmer’s only horse runs away. All of the farmer’s neighbors say “Oh, what bad fortune!”

The farmer merely replies “Perhaps. We’ll see.”

Then, the next day, the farmer’s horse returns to the farm with a wild stallion. Now the farmer has two horses.

“Oh, what great fortune!” the neighbors say.

“Perhaps. We’ll see,” replies the farmer.

Then, the farmer’s only son needs to tame the wild stallion. In the process, the son is thrown off the horse, and the young man breaks his leg.

“Oh, what bad fortune!” all the neighbors say.

“Perhaps. We’ll see,” replies the farmer once again.

A couple of weeks later, the army comes into town, to round up men to fight in the war. The farmer’s son cannot join the army, because of his broken leg.

“Ah, what wonderful fortune that your son cannot go to fight in the war, because he broke his leg, because he was taming the wild stallion, because your first horse ran away in the first place!”

“Perhaps…” said the farmer again.

As you can see, we can extend this story as long as we want. And even though we can view this story as funny, or silly, or absurd, I think it’s a vivid illustration of how we think about our lives – we believe we really understand what’s going on, and we tend to immediately judge events as “good” or “bad”. Perhaps we have a psychological need to feel like we’re in control of our lives, and to have strong opinions on what is happening, and the impact we have on our health, careers, families, friends, and communities.

There is also a lot of common wisdom in our culture, which underscores the Farmer’s Luck story. For example, we have sayings such as “Every dark cloud has a silver lining”, “It’s a blessing in disguise”, and “the Lord works in mysterious ways”. Taken to a greater extreme, we have the saying “It all worked out for the better”. I find this amusing, because it presumes that the result was “better” than what it would have been. But how would we have known? For how long?

My point is not that we don’t ever have desires, or dreams, or things for which we strive. And it’s totally normal to have an opinion on events, especially when they seem to be true tragedies — be it a death in the family, the loss of employment, a terrorist act, a health crisis, or financial ruin. But even in the most extreme cases, people can find a way to rise to the challenge and make meaning out of their suffering. As American preacher Charles Swindoll says, “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.”

It’s easy for me to think about my life, and the events which I thought were hugely “bad” or “good”. As I graduated from Creighton Prep, a Jesuit, all-boys high school in Omaha, Nebraska, I was supposed to get a full ride scholarship to Georgetown University. At the last minute, the Georgetown financial aid office told me that yes, I won the scholarship, but no, I was not going to get any financial aid. My parents were not in the position to pay Georgetown tuition, and I was devastated to realize that I was not going to study political science in Washington, DC. As a result, I ended up going to the University of Iowa, received a solid education, did a year abroad in Vienna, which led to me winning a Fulbright Scholarship to study political science in Tuebingen, Germany. That led me to teaching English in Frankfurt. Which led me to working as a business journalist in Madrid. Which led me to moving to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1991. Which led me to getting an MBA at Stanford. Which led me to Silicon Valley, just as the Internet was taking off.

Would all of this have happened if I had gone to Georgetown? Impossible to say. Would I today be the United States Secretary of State, if I had gone to Georgetown? Perhaps. Impossible to say. Would it have been “good” if I had gone to Georgetown? How about “better” than if I had gone to the U. of Iowa? Impossible to say. Independent of all that, what course of action would have made me “happier”?

And not all that glitters is gold, either. I became employee # 258 at Yahoo in 1997. As a result, I earned quite a bit of money (nothing like $19 billion!) during the first dot com boom. But I know that having that money has led to some very serious problems and challenges in my life – both professionally and personally. This reminds me of the quote “If you think lots of money will solve all of your problems, then you’ve never had lots of money.”

As another example, I was diagnosed with very early stage prostate cancer on February 5, 2013. After I got the news, I cried for a couple of hours before contacting my family, drinking a bottle of Kendall Jackson chardonnay wine, and writing a long series of questions about my life, my legacy, my relationships, my regrets, as well as how and when I might die. These questions led to me doing presentations, which have evolved into my Happiness Workshop. I’m thrilled that I’m able to share my story, and be able to help other people as they struggle through their challenges and transitions – regardless of whether they’re 18 years old and anticipating college, or 76 years old and trying to realize their dreams while they still can.

But I know that I would not be doing this “good thing” of doing my workshops, if it had not been for me getting the “bad news” of my cancer diagnosis.  As a result, one of the “13 Practices” which I mention in my Happiness Workshop is “Be careful when you are tempted to judge events as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.”  What looked like a setback for job applicants Jan Koum and Brian Acton has turned into something very good for the founders of WhatsApp.

Perhaps. At least for now. We’ll see.

; – )

ACTION EXERCISE:

For you, dear reader, I’d like to ask that you think about major events in your life.

Write out “Really Great Things”, and then make a long list.

Then write out “Really Bad Things”, and make another list.

And then see how they are interrelated. I think you’ll find that the lists quickly become so intertwined that it’s hard to imagine really labeling anything as “good” or “bad” with confidence. Once you realize this, I hope that you’ll be able to handle life’s daily challenges with a sense of equanimity, and balance, and know that perhaps you can’t know. And that’s OK.

This is my first blog post. I really appreciate your feedback. Please email me to let me know what you think, and what other topics you’d like me to address. My contact info is here. Thanks!


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