The Art of Living: Effectiveness

A Modern Reading of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching: Sections 38–43

Erik Schön
Dec 31, 2020 · 7 min read
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Photo: Austin Distel/Unsplash

What is the meaning of life? Why is this important? How do you live your life to make it more meaningful? The Art of Living provides timeless answers to these eternal questions including new perspectives on the world, people and their behaviours; practical tools for avoiding and handling conflicts, and, actionable advice on how to lead effectively and make a difference. “This is powerful, this is for practical people struggling with business goals, lacking time with family … feeling stressed.” (All parts)

38. Effectiveness

The most excellent avoid striving to excel
and so reach the highest effectiveness.
The least excellent strive to excel
and so are without effectiveness.

The most effective avoid coercion
and get everything done.
The least effective use coercion
and things are left undone.

The most authoritative act
without coercion.
The most righteous act
without coercion.
The most obedient act with coercion
and if nothing happens
roll up their sleeves and drag others along.

Therefore,
lose ultimate purpose,
and excellence follows;
lose excellence
and authority follows;
lose authority
and righteousness follows;
lose righteousness
and obedience follows.

Obedience dilutes loyalty and sincerity:
confusion begins.
Opinion tinsels ultimate purpose:
ignorance begins.

And so skilled people abide
in substance, avoid dilution;
in reality, avoid tinsel;
Accept one, reject the other.

Preassigned responses are forced and, because coercion only serves to diminish the creative possibilities of a situation, they are dehumanizing. Even in the cultivation of one’s own character, efforts to excel according to stipulated behaviours only compromise one’s natural moral proclivities, and will not do the job … Technical morality, imposed from without, is no more than a record of steady moral deterioration.

39. Wholeness

Of old, these realised wholeness:
the universe realising wholeness
became clear;
the world realising wholeness
became stable;
the river valleys realising wholeness
became full;
leaders realising wholeness
became authoritative.

Without clarity,
the universe would perish;
without stability,
the world would fall apart;
without fullness,
the river valleys would run dry;
without authority,
leaders would fail.

Therefore,
noble has humble as its root,
high has low as its foundation.
Leaders call themselves
poor,
lonely,
unable.
This is using humility as a root.

They use many carriages
and own no carriage;
They avoid the desire to glisten like jade
and drop, drop like a stone.

While it is easier to see things as a manifold of separate events, it is more difficult not only to understand the “wholeness” and “continuity” of the process but to further act upon this understanding in our transactions with the world … What we call common sense is simply coordinating our own behaviour with all that is coherent and persistent within the life experience.

40. Returning

Returning is how ultimate purpose moves.
Yielding is how ultimate purpose works.

Everything originates from something,
some things originate from nothing.

“Return” corresponds to the movement of Tao, according to which everything reverses its course as soon as it has reached its extreme, as exhibited in the working of yin — yang. However, even when the internal logic of Tao has been understood it will not be transformed into effect automatically. It still requires a corresponding scheme to bring about the effect. And that scheme is “yielding” or “being weak”. That is why it is called the function of ultimate purpose (tao)— effectiveness (te) [“te” is a virtue not in the moral sense but in terms of efficacy/effectiveness, i.e. “to obtain”/”actualise”, or, sometimes integrity]. Therefore, just as ultimate purpose (tao) is the fundamental principle and effectiveness/integrity (te) its practical application, “return” represents the fundamental principle while “yielding” denotes its practical application that affects the manifestation of “return”.

41. Square Without Corners

Thoughtful people hearing of ultimate purpose
try to practice it.
Ordinary people hearing of ultimate purpose
sometimes get it.
Thoughtless people hearing of ultimate purpose
laugh at it.
Without laughter
the ultimate purpose is beyond reach.

Therefore,
the bright road seems dark;
the road forward seems to retreat;
the level road seems rough.

Great effectiveness seems hollow;
great purity seems sullied;
pervasive effectiveness seems deficient;
established effectiveness seems furtive;
simple truths seem to change.

The greatest square is without corners;
the greatest vessel is finished late;
the greatest sound is scarcely voiced;
the greatest image is without form.

The ultimate purpose is hidden, without labels.
Ultimate purpose begins and ends with effectiveness.

The function of ultimate purpose (tao) as the site and source of creativity is discovered only in and through things. Further, as the forum of creativity, ultimate purpose (tao) must remain provisional and incomplete. Otherwise true novelty — the spontaneous, uncaused, and unexplained emergence of the new and unique — would not be possible.

True effectiveness seems deficient … if it is to make an impact, true effectiveness seems the reverse of a completed effect; it never quite achieves its result, which is precisely why it continues to result. The point is not that effectiveness is really lacking, but it is legitimate that it should seem to be so, so that, by having to continue to operate, it continues to follow an urge to come about and yet never allows itself to become completely actualised … As we have learned from modern painting, setting a high value on a preliminary sketch makes it possible for what appears to be lacking in it to allow the work to continue to evolve and produce an effect.

42. Shady and Sunny

Ultimate purpose gives rise to continuity;
continuity gives rise to difference;
the difference gives rise to plurality;
plurality gives rise to everything.

Everything has a shady side
and a sunny side:
shady and sunny,
energy blending into harmony.

People hate to be poor, lonely, and unable,
yet leaders use these labels for themselves.

Sometimes, less is more;
sometimes, more is less.

What others teach, I also teach:
coercion and violence destroy themselves.
That is the basis.

When engaging:
first, do the expected, then surprise to succeed.

Skilled combinations of surprise and the expected is:
as infinite as heaven and earth;
as inexhaustible as rivers and seas;
ending only to begin again like the sun and the moon;
dying only to live again like the four seasons.

Momentum in engaging with stakeholders arises only from the expected and the surprising, yet combining them form more ways than can ever be known.
Each brings on the other, like an infinite cycle.

Who can exhaust all possibilities?

While yin and yang help us look at things from the opposite viewpoint and hence, get a more complete picture of the situation, we should not forget the dynamic nature of yin and yang — they are at once interconnected, interpenetrating and interdependent … All correlative pairs like yin and yang are in a constant process of shifting from one end to the other. Such an organic paradigm is essential for acquiring fundamental insights and enhancing our adaptability. Since the yin and yang concept was originally derived from observations of nature (yin and yang originally represented the shady and sunny sides of a mountain), it offers a universal law of describing the interactions and interrelations of natural physical forces. And because of its emphasis on wholeness and its dynamic nature, the yin and yang concept is also able to deal with social and human systems, and, in the case of The Art of War with war as a system … Yin and yang helps to cut through the sense of paradox that may be caused by seemingly contradictory attitudes, and it can even resolve contradiction and paradox … It can be a mistake to reject conclusions because thy seem formally contradictory; such conclusions are merely reflections of things, and it can sometimes be more sensible to admit that an apparent contradiction exists than to insist that either one state of affairs or its opposite is the true one.

Instead of excluding each other, other Correlative Pairs like yin and yang mutually condition each other, and this constitutes the logic from which skilled leaders derive their strategy. For, instead of seeing no farther than the opposed aspects of things, as common sense pictures them, and keeping them isolated, skilled leaders are able to discern their interdependence and to profit from it. This is what they exploit instead of wearing themselves out in efforts of their own.

Yin and yang is a vocabulary of contrast, suggesting possible width of experience and the degree of diversity. Particular events in the world emerge as unique combinations of this diversity. In this creative process, it is a balancing and harmonising of extremes that are most productive. Hence, sometimes less is indeed more.

If you want to understand something, take it to the extremes or examine its opposites.

43. Water and Stone

The softest thing in the world
rushes over the hardest.

Only the least substantial
can penetrate the seamless.

This teaches the benefits of action without coercion.

Teaching without words,
benefits without coercion

Few in this world can attain this.

Torrential waters rumble rocks thanks to momentum.

The way to optimise the creative possibilities of all the elements in any particular situation is to allow them to collaborate in doing what they do non-coercively.

The Art of Living: All Parts

Contents: A very short summary of each part
Introduction: How to make life more meaningful

Glossary: Explanation of key terms
Acknowledgements: Standing on the shoulders of giants
Sources: Where to learn more

An Idea (by Ingenious Piece)

Everything Begins With An Idea

Erik Schön

Written by

Executive and strategist who has successfully developed and deployed strategy for over 20 years in small, medium and large organizations.

An Idea (by Ingenious Piece)

No Matter What People Tell You, Words And Ideas Can Change The World.

Erik Schön

Written by

Executive and strategist who has successfully developed and deployed strategy for over 20 years in small, medium and large organizations.

An Idea (by Ingenious Piece)

No Matter What People Tell You, Words And Ideas Can Change The World.

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