Good news? Bad news? Who knows?

Question mark

A few years back, while still work­ing at Har­vard Law School, I heard this story:

After weigh­ing her options, a soon-to-graduate stu­dent turned down lucra­tive offers at pres­ti­gious law firms to accept a low-paying fel­low­ship with a non-profit orga­ni­za­tion. This did not sit well with her fam­ily, who expected her to “do some­thing” with her Har­vard Law School degree.

Flash for­ward a few months: The Great Reces­sion has hit. Both of her par­ents have lost their well-paying jobs. Class­mates who’d thought their post-graduation lives were set are now see­ing their law firm offers post­poned or with­drawn. She alone, among her friends and fam­ily, is untouched by the crisis.

I’ve thought about this story a lot–and what it says to those of us nav­i­gat­ing Plan B Nation. As I see it, the take-away is this: We never really know for sure where our choices will take us. This doesn’t mean that we don’t do our best to plan. It does mean that we are well-advised to keep an open mind about what events “mean.”

The past two years of my own life are a case in point.

After my Har­vard Law School job ended in the wake of the Great Reces­sion, I embarked on an exhaus­tive (and exhaust­ing) search for pay­ing work. At the time of this writ­ing, I’ve long lost count of the dozens (hun­dreds?) of jobs for which I’ve applied. You see, my resume is impres­sive, but it’s also quirky. I’ve pub­lished sus­pense nov­els, writ­ten speeches for a Har­vard Law School dean (now a U.S Supreme Court Jus­tice), and designed a pro­gram to bring pub­lic school teach­ers to rural Mis­sis­sippi. At the same time, I’m not a whiz with Excel or Pow­er­Point. Basi­cally, I’m a writer, and as smart and tal­ented as I may be, I don’t eas­ily fit into an iden­ti­fi­able niche.

But here’s the thing. If I’d got­ten any of the jobs I’d applied for (and believe me, I did my best) I prob­a­bly wouldn’t be writ­ing this blog, or the pieces for Huff­in­g­ton Post and Salon that paved the way for it. And these essays that I’m writ­ing now—they feel impor­tant. Hard as the road to this point has been (and you’ll be hear­ing much more about that), right at this moment the life I’m liv­ing feels deeply meaningful.

One of my med­i­ta­tion teach­ers told this clas­sic story:

There once was a poor rice farmer, who had a very small field just large enough to feed his family.

Then one day a herd of wild horses came run­ning through the vil­lage. They ran into the farmer’s rice field and got stuck in the mud, and since they couldn’t get away, they were his.

His neigh­bor came run­ning over and said, “This is good news! Such good for­tune! You are rich, this is amaz­ing!” And the rice farmer said, “Good news, bad news, who knows?”

A few weeks later the farmer’s 12-year-old son jumped up on one of the wild horses for a ride, only to be thrown off and have his leg bro­ken. The neigh­bor comes run­ning over and says, “Oh no, this is such bad news!” And the farmer said, “Good news, bad news, who knows?”

A week later a Chi­nese gen­eral is march­ing through the farmer’s vil­lage on the way to war. On this march, the army is con­script­ing every healthy boy over 10 years of age. So they took every boy in the vil­lage except the farmer’s son because of his bro­ken leg.

The neigh­bor comes run­ning over and says, “Yes! This is won­der­ful news, how lucky are we!” And the father replies, “Good news, bad news, who knows?”

And the fact is we never do.

Fail­ing at some­thing you don’t really want—even if you think you do—may be a step on the path to a won­der­ful life you can’t even imag­ine today.

Good news, bad news, who knows?

Since we can’t know what the future holds, why not keep an open mind?