What an Old Japanese Folktale Can Teach Us About Career Satisfaction
The Stonecutter is one of my favorite Japanese folktales. Its author and date of origin are unknown, and it is likely several hundred years old. And there’s a good reason why it’s still around: the message in the story can be applied to anyone at anytime in every career.
Here’s the story in my own words:
Once upon a time, there was a stonecutter who was dissatisfied with life. Every morning, the stonecutter rolls out of bed, collects their tools, and trudges to work. With heavy steps, they walk through the city to the giant stone mountain on the edge of town, where they pound a chisel with a hammer against the solid rock so they can sell the pieces in town. All the while, the stonecutter is dreaming of a life that isn’t their own.
One morning, the stonecutter passes an enormous house that belongs to a wealthy merchant. The stonecutter reflects on all the beautiful things that must be inside the merchant’s home, the parties they must throw, the distinguished guests the merchant entertains, and the fancy foods in their cupboards. If only I could be a wealthy merchant, the stonecutter thought, then I wouldn’t have to cut stone all day.
Suddenly, the stonecutter felt a small earthquake…
To their great surprise, the stonecutter had become the merchant of their dreams. Their new home was more gorgeous than they imagined! The guests who arrived at their parties were fun, smart, and beautiful. And they enjoyed the best of foods.
Shortly after the transformation, the merchant heard gongs sounding in the streets. It was the high official of the city, and they were passing through on a sedan chair carried by attendants and escorted by a band of soldiers. No matter your wealth or status, everyone had to bow before the procession.
Walking out of their new home, the merchant thought, if only I could be the leader of this city, then I would never have to bow to anyone ever again!
The merchant felt the ground rumble…
The merchant suddenly became the high official, with their name embroidered on the sedan chair. What luck! The new high official ordered their servants and soldiers to carry them around the entire city once more. The official was feared by all the people in the land, and every person bowed before them. What power I have, thought the high official.
It was a hot day. On the second loop around the city, the high official became uncomfortable sitting in their chair as their skin became sweaty and stuck to the leather seat.
The high official looked at the sun and the sun shined back, proud in its position in the sky, making the high official more hot, thirsty, and sweaty. The sun couldn’t care less about the existence of the high official, and yet, the sun had total control over the whole kingdom.
Oh, how I wish I could be the sun, the high official thought, then I could truly be powerful, for it has much more power than the highest position in the kingdom.
The chair began to shake and…
The high official became the sun, and the sun shone fiercely down on everyone, scorching the fields and burning the laborers. The sun smiled with its new power.
And then, out of nowhere, a giant rain cloud moved between the sun and the earth, blocking the light from getting to the fields and people.
What could be more powerful than me? The sun thought. A rain cloud!? If only I could be a rain cloud, then I could be more powerful than the sun!
The sun began to tremble and then…
The sun became the rain cloud.
The rain cloud got to work right away, blocking the sun by flooding the fields and villages and raining so hard it flooded the merchant’s beautiful home and the high official’s palace. Everyone shouted at the rain cloud and asked the rain cloud to stop—to show mercy. The rain cloud thought, now I’ll really make it pour! But then it was scooted along and missed the kingdom completely.
What’s this? The rain cloud thought. Who could have power over a rain cloud!?
The wind blew, and the rain cloud moved farther up, up, and away.
If only I could be the wind, the rain cloud thought, and then I could truly be powerful.
The rain cloud began to shiver, and then…
The rain cloud became the wind.
The wind began pushing clouds, blocking the sun, and controlling the weather. It blew roofs off houses and uprooted trees. Everyone and everything feared the wind.
Until it pushed up against something that wouldn’t budge. No matter how forcefully the wind blew, the mountain stood its ground.
The stone is blocking me! The wind thought. If only I could be a stone mountain, then I could be more powerful than the wind.
Everything became silent, and then…
The wind became a giant stone mountain, and it stood strong for all to see.
Soon after the transformation, the stone mountain heard a familiar noise, the soft pitter-patter of clanging tools. The mountain recognized the sounds as the thumping of a hammer pounding a chisel into solid rock. The mountain began to feel something funny—an odd sensation of its mass changing shape. The mountain looked down to its very bottom and saw the figure of a stonecutter, chiseling pieces of rock and moving them onto a cart.
A stonecutter? The mountain thought to itself. The stonecutter has the power to cut the most powerful thing in the world. Why did I ever want to be anything else?
The moral? I’ll leave it up to you. My take is, we have everything we need right now. Instead of saying, I’ll be happier if... look at all the ways you can be happy in the position you are in now. At times, we are so focused on getting to the next step in our career, we miss the meaningful opportunities that are already waiting for us. There is a lot of power in a stonecutter, but sometimes you have to become a stone mountain to realize how important and powerful the stonecutter’s hammer and chisel are.
One way I remind myself of my inner stonecutter is with a gratitude journal. When I can (I try to every night), I write down a few things I’m grateful for that came up during the day. When I’m finished, I flip through my journal to remind myself of all the things I’ve been thankful for over the last few weeks. Another way I remain mindful is a practice I’ve invited my family and friends to partake in: Before dinner, we go around the table saying one thing each of us is thankful for. (No repeats! All original “thankfuls” that happened that day.)
Focusing on what I have in the present moment helps me plan my next step. I focus less on the desire for power or money, and more on making a difference with the tools I have available to me. There is forward momentum, but it’s gradual. And I spend more of my energy on what I can do, instead of what I can’t, but wish I could.
More than luck,
P.S. I collect folktales from all over the world. If you have one you wish to share with me, email me here.
Andrew J. Wilt is the author of Age of Agility, a book that addresses the skill gap between school and work. He can be reached at Andrew.firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @andrewjwilt