Tao Te Ching

The Power of Goodness, the Wisdom Beyond Words
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Decision-making and sound judgment based on careful reasoning brings us halfway to success. Some—born with this natural advantage—avoiding everything frivolous, prejudicial, and lacking forethought, rise high in social, organizational, and political influence. Their innate common sense takes them to respected and deserved positions of leadership.


Mediocrity is comforting but cowardly. It can avoid stress but pays by also avoiding success. Fear fools us into mistaking comfort for happiness. By avoiding challenge we only assure our own failure. The great revel in challenge, eschew mediocrity, and excel in the most excellent. They prefer the more difficult, see problems as opportunities, and easily inspire admiration and good will. To be excellent in little, unimportant ways is to be unimportant with little excellence. Much better to pull out the stops and seize the day.


We're only as successful as our support, as our tools allow. Skill without the means of using it doesn't go far. Most find choosing and finding physical tools much easier than finding the best associates, partners, assistants, employees. Too often, factors unrelated to skill influence these decisions—for example, history's countless and disastrous examples of nepotism. Some worry that subordinates will outshine them and for this reason choose inferior support. Some make these bad choices from a misguided and inappropriate sense of compassion.


Most prefer imitation to invention and in that way secure an inferior place in their profession, in their society, and in history. They choose the easier path of copying and find it easier but look to the world like parrots and unknowingly build a glass ceiling they will never be able to rise above. Those with the courage to take chances and try new ventures and ideas, however, immediately gain advantage and invite fame and recognition. If both first and successful, that success becomes twice as impressive.


Doing harm to yourself in order to please another does not describe true compassion but rather a perverted understanding. True compassion requires intelligence and understanding of the entire situation. Creating pain for ourselves in order to calm or give pleasure to another can help a small segment but harm the whole. Instead, look ahead and avoid problems whenever possible. Unless clearly beneficial, neither give nor receive bad news. Protect your ears from the sick sweetness of flattery, the perverse bitterness of scandal, the depressing entertainment of sensationalist bad news. (cf. #163)


The thoughtful and perceptive become the most difficult to impress. They quickly see through exaggeration and salespersonship but also have a deep appreciation for the authentic and true. You can train this genuine good taste like education trains the intellect and those trained in this way immediately attract respect. Only goodness satisfies a great mind and even the most skilled scam artists tremble before this kind of perceptive spirit. To know and associate with someone who cultivates this kind of integrity and taste creates great good fortune. You can learn deep lessons leading to great happiness and a meaningful life just by identifying and watching people like this.


In this nod to Machiavelli, Gracian (born 132 later)—or possibly a later editor—contradicts most of his other suggestions and paraphrases this famous sentiment from The Prince with a slightly more Christian softness:
A successful conclusion washes away the negative memories and bad feelings that arise from using unethical methods. If you win, you don't have to explain or justify yourself so winning holds the supreme importance. The goal is the journey. History only records in detail success and failure, not the means. Therefore, sometimes becoming successful requires breaking the rules.


In this second, not-typical, probably inserted chapter; power and prestige-seeking is again glorified:
Choose a livelihood that will gain you the most praise and fame. Some professions immediately attract esteem while others—although sometimes more important—do not. Prefer the paths that bring the most prestige, that put you closer to the center of celebrity. An honored reputation brings the breath of life.


From moment to moment, the most appropriate response changes but most only see what is past or what they hope will occur in the future, not noticing opportunities in the present. Most possibilities slide past us into oblivion because we ignore them or because we are afraid of the risks. Most never find success simply because they don't make the attempt. Often a close friend has a more clear awareness of this kind of achievability than the friend themselves. When giving this kind of advice however, subtlety and reticence become key to communication that inspires without controlling manipulation. Don't say more than necessary and add further bits of confidence-building only if necessary.


Don't let your impulses and strong feelings enslave you to whims and poor judgment. Under the influence of contradictory desires, public opinion, and seemingly certain external opinion; most people unknowingly live their lives controlled by subtle cultural and political forces they not only don't understand but also don't even notice. This creates cognitive dissonance and a damned-if-you do/damned-if-you don't dichotomy between our beliefs and our true selves. Instead, focus on knowing yourself. Self-reflection can become the best school of wisdom.


Saying "no" risks good will, friendships, and all kinds of relationships. Learning how to do this in a skillful way therefore determines—to a large extent—our success in life. "Yes" and "no" are short words quickly spoken, but, because of their deep and profound consequences, require serious and thoughtful consideration. The arrogant and power-intoxicated tend to maintain "no" as a first response and, as a consequence, lose good will even when they later approve. Instead of creating resentment, a wisdom-inspired "no" can invoke more appreciation than a cursory "yes". It substitutes politeness, charm, and fine words for acquiescent action. Not capricious or abrupt but gilded with positives, this kind of "no" usually evolves slowly and incrementally over time. Never "final", it always leaves room for hope and change.


Although inevitable, change need not undermine reliability. When not capricious but instead based on sound reasoning, change doesn't confuse people making them doubt our reliability. When personal change arises because of consistently responding to externally changing situations and events, reputations for dependability remain solid. However, when conduct frequently vacillates out of boredom for no reason other than novelty, we destroy our credibility, our reputation, and our ability to accomplish and succeed. Heart and vision can remain consistent and dependable while external action and strategy quickly change with the changing circumstances.


Like the potentially destructive power of water increasing when dammed, doing a careless, bad job on a project creates less harm than lack of determination—not carefully considering, looking ahead, and strategizing that same plan. Most don't see clearly and get stuck. Mired in indecision, they become mindless followers. Some see the problems and ways forward but lack the resolution and determination to accomplish anything. Wise and true leaders not only see the problems and solutions clearly, they also skillfully and without hesitation apply the solution to the problem accomplishing successful outcomes and quickly moving on to the next challenge.


Complicated, confusing, and dangerous difficulties easily becomes worse after an ill-considered remark or gesture. The wise instead extricate themselves with skillful evasions, elegant jokes, witty remarks, warm smiles, changing the subject, or pretending to not understand. Potentially serious conflicts submerge when intriguing diversions arise. These methods can also skillfully ease the pain of refusals. Sometimes the most clear understanding leads to acting like we don't understand.


Don't let a higher position or new level of approval change your attitude and approach to others. Often people win more authority with obsequious deceit; and when they assume the new role go to the opposite extreme with surly, irritating, unapproachable arrogance. They get revenge for having to please everyone by making everyone irritated and angry. The more power we receive, the more approachable we should become. Being unapproachable communicates a deep lack of self-knowledge, and self-confidence; a judgment that we don't deserve the position.


Although imitation traps us in boxes of conformity, a wealth of creative inspiration can arise from watching an heroic model. Find and study examples of greatness—not to mindlessly follow but to spark more creative energy. While awareness of others' success inflames jealousy, competition, and envy in the foolish; it kindles dedication, confidence, and noble deeds in the wise.


A good sense of humor has an important but small place in life. Too much joking undermines credibility and—while it may create a reputation for good wit—prevents people from taking us seriously. Joking and lying share many similarities and both make people not know when they can and when they can't believe us. When we have an important and serious point to make, people at first expect that we're just joking again and any influence the point might have quickly dissolves.


What separates us often seems so huge while in actuality remaining quite tiny. We can almost always find a quality within ourselves that can harmonize and connect the people we communicate with—a little philosophy with the philosophers, a little humor with the jovial, seriousness with the scientific, saintly with the saints, street-smart with the hustlers. The good will and support of others determines so much of success in life and not much creates good will more than listening, noticing moods, understanding, and corresponding to each unique, personal interaction.

78The foolish often ignore advice and strategy but appear brave while heedlessly rushing into danger. Many equate a premature rush into action on impulse without consideration as freedom. When met with the almost inevitable failure, this same ill-considered foolishness projects, blames, and ignores the unfortunate consequences. The wise instead plumb the depths and the deeper the waters, the more slowly they go forward. The more complicated the situation or relationship, the more carefulness required. Caution dilutes danger.

In excess a vice, in timely moderation a virtue; jovial humor can either degrade integrity or add a pleasant spice to situations. Often the encounters most beneficially taken lightly are the same ones most take too seriously. The wise join in the fun to an extent but never go beyond the boundaries of decorum, rectitude, or decency. Humorous wit can extract us from difficult, socially dangerous encounters as well as amplify the good feelings arising from positive experience. The wise use it judiciously.