Two Battles Fought, One From the Heart

A Cherokee teaching story describes a fight between two fierce wolves. One wolf is evil, angry, envious, jealous, self-pitying, guilty and resentful. The other is good, kind, peaceful, loving, hopeful, serene, humble, generous, truthful and faithful. The Cherokees ask their seated listeners, “Which wolf will win the fight?” The answer and the intended lesson is: The wolf that wins is the one you feed.

Even if you never read or heard this little short tale before, you probably guessed the answer. The story obeys a pattern, as do so many things related to questions of optimism and pessimism, negativity and “positivity” and even (to a certain degree) right and wrong. The answer is typically some variation on the theme that “the answer is in your hands. Choose wisely.”

Apparently, an awful lot of people are wired to be biased toward pessimism. The reason for that, it was explained to me, has to do with jumping to conclusions. If your bias is negative, you are likely to be safer than if the opposite were the case. If you hear something rattling around in the bushes and you conclude it’s a mountain lion, there’s not much penalty if you are wrong. But if you hear something in the bushes and conclude it’s a rabbit (and it’s actually a mountain lion), there’s no laughing that one off. A bunny gets a smile, but 85 pounds of startled, angry cat comes with deadly serious teeth and long razor-sharp claws.

An economist I knew for almost 20 years always spoke about the gloom that was about to descend. I never understood why the rooms were filled when he spoke. Everyone knew what they were going to get. Fear. Woe. Stock market crashes. No surprises there.

My messages were always more optimistic: People are creative. They are problem solvers. What goes down does come up.

I could not understand why audiences preferred my negative colleague’s speeches to my own. Then it hit me. Suppose I say something like, “Opportunities are everywhere thanks to our creativity and our genius.” Optimistic assessments encourage you to put your money at risk. If I am right, you make money and we are both pleased. But if I am wrong, you lose money—which always carries a sting.

The doomsayer who warns you of a looming tragedy is your friend because he (or she) is watching out for you. That person gets your gratitude even if they are wrong—you played safe because of his or her gloomy prediction, and you didn’t have anything at risk. And if the pessimist is right, and things fell apart, it’s not his fault—he’s the one who warned you. It’s your fault if you lost money, because you were the one who listened to me.

When the wolves fight, it is at night and in the realm of the heart. When the investors listen to the economist speak, the competition takes place in the strategy-making places of the mind.

We have all witnessed metaphorical battles between “good” and “evil” wolves. Many of us have taken part in marketplace competitions involving players who put things of importance and value at risk. The rules and ploys for each contest are different. The Cherokees had wisdom about fights between wolves. The other conflict is up to us to understand.


  • Joel Kurtzman

    Former Editor-in-Chief, Korn Ferry Institute