Sài Wēng Shī MǍ

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When life takes an unexpected turn, do you see it as turning for better or for worse? Most of us take it at face value: good as good, bad as bad. But sometimes, these series of unfortunate events mask something far greater, which we will only see by looking in the rear-view mirror.

That is exactly what the Chinese idiom sài wēng shī mǎ (塞翁失馬) means.

An old man living in the northern border of China lost his horse one day. The neighbors tried to console him but they were surprised when the old man said, “I lost a horse. Who knows? This might not even be a bad thing.”

A couple of days later, his horse came back and brought another fine stallion along. The neighbors came out and congratulated him over his good fortune. However, the old man was not overjoyed and, instead, replied, “My horse came back and brought another fine horse. Who knows this might not even be a good thing.”

True enough, while his son was riding the new stallion, he fell down and broke his leg. Once again, his neighbors came and tried to comfort him. But his answer was still the same: Who knows this might not even be a bad thing.

A year later, when the Huns threatened to invade China, all the healthy men were mandated to defend the country. The recruiting officer, seeing that his son was injured, did not draft him. The battle lasted for years with several hundreds of thousands dead. Had it not been for his injury, the old man’s son would have most likely perished in the war.

The story teaches us to view any incident as neither blessing nor tragedy. A blessing may turn out to be tragedy but the reverse also holds true. It teaches us not to fret when things do not turn out as expected. After all, something good may come out of it.

Something good actually came out of my dad having stroke two years ago. Naturally, at the time, we did not see it—not when all of us were concerned and anxious over his day-to-day condition. But he has fully recovered, and in a short time too! The only thing he could not do after it happened was swim and lift weights.

Prior to the stroke, my dad was living a very unhealthy lifestyle. At an age when he should have been selective about his diet, he gobbled away some of the worse food known to man. He often got into an argument with my mom, who would try to stop him from eating the fattiest portions of meat, cooked in the least healthy way.

He also stayed up very late, at times reading novels until three in the morning. Worst of all, he smoked, a vice he maintained for 30 years. Although he was not a chain smoker (as he claimed), the decades of nicotine accumulating in his system was something we worried about. And he refused to quit.

But his lifestyle turned around dramatically after his stroke. He must have experienced an epiphany because, henceforth, he started to eat healthily. He began to sleep much earlier as well. Best of all, he stopped smoking altogether. His stroke was his “broken leg,” and it probably saved his life.

In the business environment, a lot of tycoons and taipans have had their own Sài Weng Shī Mǎ stories. During Steve Jobs’ commencement address before Stanford graduates, he recounted the struggles he went through after he dropped out and decided to take only the classes that interested him. One of them was a calligraphy class. When he was designing the Macintosh, he was able to apply the things he learned in that class.

If Jobs had not dropped out, Mac computers would probably not have had their beautiful typography, one of the things that distinguishes it from all other personal computers.

Locally, Lamoiyan Corporation president Cecilio Pedro had a similar experience. When he lost his job as the aluminum tube supplier of industry giants, Colgate and Philippine Refining Company (now Unilever) as a result of the switch from aluminum to plastic tubes, he made the best decision he ever made.

He came up with his own brand of toothpaste. Today, Hapee toothpaste has proven to be a formidable contender against the very foreign brands who were once Pedro’s clients, achieving a significant market share.

o the next time a seemingly tragic thing happens, stop and reevaluate it. After all, because of a seeming tragedy, an old man’s son was saved, my dad lives a healthier life, and two men went on to build their own business empires.

Print ed: 08/11