Good luck or bad luck? You don’t know

Posted in: Taoism
A chef’s cancer diagnosis

If you were diagnosed with stage IV squamous cell carcinoma-tongue cancer and the doctor told you your only chance of survival required undergoing a brutal surgery that would remove most of your neck, some of your jaw, and your tongue, would you consider it good luck or bad luck?

What if, even after the surgery, your odds of survival were only 25%?

Grant Achatz, the owner and head chef of Alinea, the three Michelin star restaurant in Chicago, had to grapple with this situation in 2007, just as his career was booming.


There is a Chinese parable about a horse and a farmer. In the parable, the farmer’s horse runs away. The neighbors offer the farmer some sympathy, telling him how unfortunate it is. The farmer says “maybe.” 

The horse comes back and brings with it other horses, boosting the farmer’s horse inventory. The friends say “this is such good luck!.” The farmer says “maybe.”

The farmer’s son rides one of the wild horses and is thrown off the horse and breaks his leg. The friends says, “such bad luck that your son broke his leg!” The farmer says, “maybe.”

The army comes around to draft young men for the war. They see the farmer’s son has a broken leg and moves on, exempting him from the draft and the war. The friends say, “what good luck!” The farmer says “maybe.”


Achatz, after receiving his diagnosis and prognosis, made a decision to forgo the surgery and die. Removing his tongue would end his career as a chef, his vocation, his calling in life.

He clearly decided it was bad luck.

His business partner made an announcement in the New York Times announcing Achatz’s diagnosis and likely death. As a celebrity chef with one of the best restaurants in the world, this was news.

Not long after, the University of Chicago called Achatz and offered an experimental chemotherapy and radiation treatment that could potentially cure his cancer without surgery with a 75% survival rate. Achatz accepted.

This was good luck.

The treatment was a success, but Achatz lost his sense of taste and it was unclear if it would come back.

This was bad luck.

Achatz decided to rely on his staff to taste for him, and with his new systems and techniques, developed the most innovative dishes and experiences in the culinary world.

This was good luck.

Since then, Achatz’s sense of taste came back and he continues to be one of the top chefs and restaurant owners in the world.

Is this good luck or bad luck?


Though Achatz’s story could be interpreted as an inspirational one about someone overcoming a life threatening disease, the parable of the farmer and the horse offers the more significant lesson: you shouldn’t judge the the events of your life as good or bad.

For example, the fact that Achatz received a fatal cancer diagnosis would be considered by any rational person to be terrible news. But his professional success to that point made it so the world took notice, which meant he was able to get an experimental treatment that saved his life.

In addition, the temporary loss of taste forced him to become even more innovative in the kitchen, improving his craft and furthering his success.

At any single point in his life you may think he is experiencing good luck or bad luck, but the the good and bad things that happen have a complex, unknowable relationship with unpredictable outcomes.

The challenge is to accept and appreciate ALL of your life, not just the parts you think are “good.”