The Art of Living: Self-Organisation

A Modern Reading of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching: Sections 24–30

Erik Schön
Dec 29, 2020 · 7 min read
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Photo: Walerian Walawski

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)

24. The Taoist World

Lao Tzu

Standing over tiptoeing;
walking over striding;
shining over showing;
standing out over self-assertion;
succeeding over self-praise;
enduring over complacency.

When following ultimate purpose, indulgences are like
excessive food,
extraneous activity
and are to be avoided.

So, follow ultimate purpose and move on.


The Taoist does not linger at the scene of success, or call attention to it.


All excess is harmful. The Taoist is humble and discreet.

Ames & Hall

Arrogance is disintegrating. It is both an unrealistic obsession with the importance of one’s own role and a blindness to the contributions of those around one. Ironically, it has the opposite of the desired effect. Rather than persuading the community of one’s own singular worth, it turns them away in irrepressible disgust.

25. Self-Organisation

Something self-organised
before the universe existed,
silent, formless,
alone, unchanging,
all-pervading without perishing.
Like the mother of the universe,
unaware of its name—
call it ultimate purpose
call it great.

Great means passing;
passing means going far;
going far means returning.

ultimate purpose is great,
and the universe,
and the world,
and the people.
Four great things.
And people are one of them.

People follow the world;
the world follows the universe;
the universe follows ultimate purpose.

Ultimate purpose self-organises.


As the theory of “returning” displays how Tao emulates nature, it helps to rationalise the seemingly paradoxical strategic scheme of the Taoists, which is about encouraging the impetus of natural propensity through means that appear to be contrary to the original goal.

“The world”, “the universe” and “ultimate purpose” (tao) can be viewed as different levels of simplification. “Ultimate purpose” (tao) has the least simplification, as it doesn’t follow anything but rather self-organises. On the other hand, as Lao Tzu indicates, people tend to follow “the world,” the level of maximum simplification, and make use of highly simplified forms and models to represent reality. When seen through these “lenses,” the world is seriously distorted, while the dynamism stemming from the flow of variance is completely lost as an inevitable result.

26. Balancing

The heavy is the root of the light;
balance is the master of agitation.

Therefore, leaders travelling all day
stay in the baggage cart;
only when surrounded by magnificent scenery
rise above such concerns.

How could leaders of global organisations
treat themselves as less important than the world?

Treating themselves lightly, losing the root;
becoming agitated, losing the role.

Ames & Hall

If leaders treat all things with equal seriousness and respect, their own persons will be taken care of as a matter of course. The way to be rid of such personal concerns is to be rid of the distinction between one’s person and the world in which we live.

27. The Vital Secret

Ably travel without tracks;
ably speak without slips;
ably count without markers;
ably shutting without bolts,
yet stay locked;
ably knotting without rope,
yet stay tied.

In this way, skilled leaders
always help people,
welcoming all
always help beings,
welcoming all
They follow common sense.

Therefore able people train,
while the inept provide raw materials.

While wise enough
failing to value their trainer,
failing to love the raw materials
means getting lost.

This is vital self-knowledge.

Ames & Hall

True effectiveness means having the sense to take things on their own terms and in so doing, to turn them to optimum account.


Initial action takes place upstream, at the stage when everything is still flexible and offers no resistance … Tracks, slips and tools are only needed downstream where one must strive in the face of the concrete.

28. Uncarved Wood

Know man, safeguard woman,
and be a ravine to the world.
As a ravine to the world,
effectiveness will endure.
Return to childhood.

Know the clean, safeguard the soiled
and be a valley to the world.
As a valley to the world,
effectiveness will be ample.
Return to uncarved wood.

Know honour, support disgrace,
and be a model for the world
and effectiveness will prevail.
Return to simplicity.

Uncarved wood split into utensils.
Leaders employed as managers.

The most skilful tailor cuts the least.

Ames & Hall

While splitting up the world and making distinctions within it might seem to have a functional value, it always entails a diminution. The most effective way of cultivating order in the world invariably relies upon the power of inclusivity.


How is it possible to win the world without meddling? … There is a Taoist scheme derived from the Taoist methodology that is most applicable to the diplomatic and strategic scenes, and it bears some resemblance to game theory. The message … is about far more than being humble. It is not hard to discern that “man” stands for superiority and “woman” inferiority. It is common understanding that people wish to be superior rather than inferior. As people strive to become superior and states struggle to gain hegemony, however, there will be fierce competition, and most contenders will end up in failure. Therefore, the Taoists see it from another, if not reversed, angle: in order to succeed, one has to first understand both sides — “man” and “woman”. Yet the key is to renounce the claim to superiority and hegemony and to remain inferior (i.e. “safeguard women”) while fully understanding the “man” side (i.e. “know man”) and the game itself. By remaining inferior and being humble like a ravine, an individual or state can win the hearts and minds of other people or states more easily and will ultimately stand a better chance of becoming superior or gaining hegemony. Here we can see how “purely” strategic and effect-based the Chinese strategic thought is in nature, even to the degree of forsaking the claim to hegemony.

29. Spiritual Vessel

Desire to control the world will fail:
the world is a spiritual vessel outside of control;
trying to rule means ruining it;
trying to control means losing it.

Some go first; others follow;
some breathe in, others breathe out;
some are strong, others defeated;
some oppress, others are destroyed.

Therefore, skilled leaders avoid

Sun Tzu

Skilled leadership’s success looks easy since it is well-prepared.
Therefore their wisdom is without fame;
their courage without honour.
They engage without mistakes.
Without mistakes, success is certain since competition is already defeated.


By forcing things one goes counter to their natural development and consequently loses them. The spiritual vessel is an allusion to the Nine Sacred Bronze Vessels, which were symbolic of the Royal Power over the empire.

Ames & Hall

Harmony in nature is not only auto-generative and self-sustaining, but persists only as long as it remains free from calculated manipulation, well-intended or otherwise. When the patterns of nature are taken as counsel for political order in the empire, they teach us that the human world too will flourish if left to its own internal impulses.


In any long-term endeavour of a massive scale, with countless interactions such as ruling the state and winning the world, a cult of action is bound to fail. In short, both the empire and the world cannot be objects of action.

A remarkable victory shares the same shortcomings as those resulting from taking action, as both a remarkable victory and actions are easy to spot and inevitably provoke (new) elements of resistance. Although they may well prove to be of great value in non-successive moves, their shortcomings will eventually outweigh the benefits they can bring in the long run.

30. Avoiding Coercion

Use ultimate purpose to lead people,
avoid using weapons
which soon turn on themselves.

Where armies camp, thistles grow;
after each war, years of famine.

The most fruitful outcomes
come without coercion:
without arrogance;
without hostility;
without prise;
without resistance;
without violence;
is likely to endure.

For something to grow old in its prime
is against ultimate purpose.
What is against ultimate purpose soon ends.


Victories are won through propensity rather than force or actions. One of the most important tasks for a strategist is to recognise and assist natural propensity by encouraging its impetus, with the downfall of an adversary likely to follow as an inevitable result.

Ames & Hall

To achieve enduring results in all we do, we should be consistent with the way of things. To depart from this course of action and take any situation to an extreme will only backfire on us, producing untoward consequences. A good example of this precept is the use of arms to effect order … Look to optimise the possibilities of the situation even when success is minimising our losses … Force can be justified only when a failure to respond aggressively would entail a great degree of coercion … Martial order is an oxymoron.

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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