Finding the Pony in the Pile

Faced with adverse situations? Dig. 


I’ve written before on the benefits for strategists of finding strength and beauty, and you can look here for that.

But this post is a little different. This one is about finding strength from adversity. This is about the pony in the pile. If you don’t know the apocryphal story, here it is:

Once there were five-year-old twin boys,
one a pessimist and the other an optimist.
Wondering how two boys who seemed so alike could
be so different, their parents took them to a psychiatrist.

The psychiatrist took the pessimist to a room piled high
with new toys,
expecting the boy to be thrilled, but instead he burst into tears.

Puzzled, the psychiatrist asked, “Don’t you want to play with these toys?”
“Yes,” the little boy bawled,
“but if I did I’d only break them.”

Next the psychiatrist took the optimist to a room piled high with horse manure.

The boy yelped with delight, clambered to the top of the pile,

and joyfully dug out scoop after scoop,
tossing the manure into the air with glee.
“What on earth are you doing?” the psychiatrist asked.
“Well,” said the boy, beaming,

 “There’s got to be a pony in here somewhere!”


So that’s the pony in the pile in the traditional sense, but what about in your own professional life? How do you look for the pony in the piles of manure you’ve walked into?  Maybe the better question is, “Do you even look for the pony?” I can offer a few anecdotes that address my own stubborn growth on this topic.  I’ve reflected on these often.

About 12 years ago, I was an ambitious, strapping young lad who had just joined what many consider to be the most prestigious professional services firm in the world.  My second assignment as a member of this bastion of intellect and influence was to recommend elements of a massive downsizing for a struggling company.  It was not only a project that you had to swallow hard to take in the first place, it was also right in the middle of the holiday season. I have never hoped to have to say “Merry Christmas, you’re fired” to anyone as they are being laid off, but this was it. The pile of manure was tall, dark, and handsome, and to put it bluntly, I didn’t see a pony in sight.

It was, to most people involved, a distasteful project.

Then, about 9 years ago, I had the opportunity to lead a team in a gut-wrenching engagement to support the buy side of a highly complex, time-sensitive M&A transaction that involved multiple large corporations, multiple cultures, and a massive government component to boot. For all involved, it was an absolute mess of a project, and I got to sit right at the nexus. The pile of manure was standing tall once again.

These couple of instances of the “pile” and their separate trajectories through my life may be informative to you.

The first instance was dire, but it was clearly an opportunity to learn something I hadn’t learned before. Nobody was breaking ethical rules; the company was just sick and needed help. I was everything short of malcontent, and at some point, I even got there. But the work got done, I learned a ton, and to this day I believe that any young, self-righteously smart person ought to have to go through the effort of trying to turn around a dying company, even if only as an adviser. In short, here, the pony was staring me right in the face, and I only needed to look.

The second instance was exceptionally challenging. Through the hours, pressure, and politics, several people involved with the project struggled to recoup their professional lives after it was over. In that instance, I could sense that the learning experience would be a good one.  I could also sense–as the banker across the table from me fell asleep during the meeting–that the pain was shared across all parties; in other words, I didn’t have to dig too far to find the pony.  That was one of the most heartbreaking and energy-sucking projects I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of–one that I never want to relive–but the experience I gained from that roughly 10-week period of no sleep, constant travel, and absolute burnout strongly buttressed my professional outlook–although it left behind scar tissue that to this day has not gone away.

So why the serenade on heaps of manure and ponies? Really it’s because maybe somebody else can benefit from the little bit of perspective I’ve been able to accumulate.  Namely:

  • The worst experiences are often the best growth opportunities for your life, professional or otherwise.
  • Until you recognize adversity for the learning experience it is, it’s hard to look for the growth opportunity.
  • Many of us hide behind facades in order to avoid confronting the dung heap.
  • It’s better to start digging than to continue complaining.

I’ve never been accused of being an eternal optimist, but I have learned that when you’re presented with a pile of manure, dig for the pony.

How about you? You dig?

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