A Farmer and His Children
The Irony of Chasing False Hopes
Michael Carroll

  
Probably the most frustrating workplace irony for many of us is how we relentlessly pursue success but never seem to arrive at being successful.  Of course, there are millions of successful people--Nobel Prize winners, college graduates, loving parents.  But for a variety of reasons, so many of us do not feel successful even when we achieve much of what we are striving for.  Particularly at work, we can find ourselves searching for wealth, recognition, and accomplishment, yet year in and year out, no matter how much we achieve, there's still something that seems to elude our grasp.  The famed Greek fabulist Aesop shed some light on this dilemma more than twenty-six hundred years ago in a short tale entitled, "A Farmer and His Children":

A farmer, at death's door, wishing to impart to his children an important secret, called them to his deathbed and said, "My children, I am about to die.  I would have you know, therefore, that our vineyard contains a hidden treasure--a treasure I have cherished all my life.  Dig and you, too, will find it."

When their father died, the children took spade and pitchfork and turned the soil of the vineyard over and over again in their search for the treasure, which they were told lay hidden in the vineyard.  

For weeks and weeks, they toiled, breathlessly searching every inch of the land.  Finally, the children ended their search in frustration, for they had found no treasure.  But to their surprise, the vines, after so much thorough digging, produced a bountiful, lush crop of grapes such as had never been seen before.

Like the farmer's children, we are all, in one way or another, looking for treasure at work:  the promotion, new assignment, salary increase, recognition, big bonus.  At times, it's as if we sense that work holds the winning number to life's lottery, and each day we toil in hopes of hitting the jackpot.

Yet like the farmer's children, most of us come up empty-handed.  At times, work's disappointments can feel like a cruel joke.  No matter how hard we work, no matter how much success we achieve, no matter how secure or celebrated we feel, it never seems enough.  We work the fields of our jobs each day in search of treasure, and too often we come home feeling unfulfilled, frustrated, and weary.

But Aesop's tale reveals a profound spiritual irony to our frustration:  in mistakenly searching for a treasure that does not exist, we overlook the good fortune being cultivated right within our grasp.  Like the farmer's children, we rush to get somewhere else--to become more secure or more successful or more wealthy--and in our rush, we overlook where we are:  we fail to notice that a great and bountiful harvest is unfolding as we work.

In so many respects, Aesop's tale reveals one of the great workplace contradictions that we face each day:  "success" tells us to hurry up, find the treasure, get to the goal, whereas "work" tells us to slow down, attend to the details, appreciate what is needed.  And the task of trying to achieve both often feels impossible.

According to Aesop's tale, the "success" that we are rushing to grasp does not, in fact, exist:  misunderstanding the situation, we find ourselves chasing false hopes.  The so-called treasure that lies hidden in the vineyard is nothing other than the vineyard itself, yet mistakenly, we find ourselves desiring more wealth, more prestige--a treasure that will change our lives, solve all our problems, and free us from our toil.  But such treasure--such success--does not exist.

Luckily, although there is no treasure, there is a bounty to be found in the very act of our labor itself.  If the farmer's children had realized this, their breathless turning of the soil need not have been so frenzied, for they rushed past the actual experience their father had so cherished--they missed the joy of their labor.

Of course, we could say that the farmer's children would never have tilled the soil so vigorously unless they were searching for a treasure.  But such a cynical approach to work is unnecessary.  We need not lie to ourselves and chase after false hopes in order to be productive.  We can care for our vineyard thoroughly and properly without the frustration of pursuing false hopes.  We need not see ourselves as circus monkeys who perform only when tempted with enticements and charades. . . .

For the mindful leader, then, Aesop's challenge is to fully appreciate where we are at work and abandon our rush to get somewhere else that we hope will be more secure, more successful, or more amazing.  And in so doing, we may discover a confident joy in our labor--a bounty that may open us up to our workplace and save us from the painful irony of chasing false hopes.

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