The power of the outsider

Reading chapter 20 of the Tao Te Ching

Dennis Hambeukers
Published in
5 min readDec 25, 2023


“Exterminate learning and there will no longer be worries. Between yea and nay how much difference is there? How great is the distance? What others fear, one must also fear. And wax without having reached the limit.

The multitude are joyous as if partaking of the T’ai Lao offering or going up to a terrace in spring. I alone am inactive and reveal nog signs like a baby that has not yet learned to smile. Listless as though with no home to go back to. The multitude all have more than enough. I alone seem to be in want. My mind is that of a fool — how blank! Vulgar people are clear, I alone am drowsy. Vulgar people are alert, I alone am muddled.

Calm like the sea like a high wind that never ceases. The multitude all have a purpose, I alone am foolish and uncouth. I alone am different from others and value being fed by the mother.”

The Tao Te Ching has a lot of outsider vibes: me against the multitude. It feels like a manifesto, a call for revolution. The multitude do not follow the way. It feels elitist. It feels like a call for a new world, a new way of being that is detached from conventions. But it also talks about how the multitude is happy. It promotes a life away from conventions but it also recognizes the conventions create happiness and clarity and purpose for the multitude that don’t follow the way. Ignorance is bliss.

I see three parts in this chapter. Part one is about letting go of conventions, part two is about how the conventions provide a solid base for a happy life for the multitude and how lonely life outside conventions is, and part three is about that it is okay to be different and outside the multitude.

So the theme seems to be outsiderness. It’s seems to me it’s about being different and the fear that comes from being different. Humans are created with a primal fear: the fear of being outside the group. We are social animals and in pre-historic times, one can imagine that being outside the group could be a danger to your life since the group offered protection and food. But those days are long gone and we still are afraid of falling outside a group. It also seems to talk about another social aspect: jealousy. Lao seems to envy the abundance, the fun, and the clarity of the group that he is not part of. We all know that all too well in this time of social media where everyone seems to have fun and abundance all the time. I also see a bit of judgment here. Lao talks about the vulgar people. That is judgement. He labels people who are different and with that judges them. Vulgar is lacking sophistication or good taste. It’s demeaning and Lao seems to put himself above others with this label. So this chapter goes to show that Lao is a sage but he is also human or at least pointing to the things that make up the human condition: fear of being outcast, jealousy and judgement.

What I understand of the Tao is that it is a way of being beyond labels as we can also read with this other Taoist sage, Zhuangzi:

“If man would once forsake this habit of labelling things good and bad, desirable or undesirable, then the man-made ills, which are the product of man’s purposeful and value ridden actions, would disappear and the natural ills that remain would no longer be seen as ills, but as an inevitable part of the course of life.” — Zhuangzi

Outsider and multitude are labels. Sameness and difference are illusions, constructs, labels. We are all different and we are all the same. I alone is an illusion of uniqueness. We are all unique and we are all one. There are no outsiders. We are all elements of a network and the network determines our positions in time. Some people will be more on the inside and have more connections and other will be on the outside. We all have our roles to play in different networks. The outsider is a role in a time in a network. In another network in another time, the outside might be an insider.

Being an outsider is a role that has its benefits. People with lots of connections, people on the inside of the group must please and follow conventions. The outsider does not have that burden. For outsiders it is easier to be authentic, to think more freely. This freedom comes at a price. Connection also comes with a price. You pay with feeling alone for the freedom to be authentic. You pay with authenticity for being part of the group. It’s not all black and white but you get the point. In the group, you get validation from others. Outside the group, validation has to come from the inside. In the group, you have the illusion of clarity. Outside the group, you learn to embrace uncertainty. The people inside the group will see you as a fool if you are outside the group because the people inside the group are governed by conventions and the fear of being different.

This chapter, to me, is about the benefits of living outside the conventions of the multitude. The learnings, the conventions that are programmed into us, are helpful for clarity, fun, abundance but they are also the source of worries. The labelling of good and bad creates conflict. We must fear what others fear. Life beyond the conventions, beyond the learnings, is calm like the sea. Life without purpose, life that follows the flow, is being fed by the mother, mother earth, nature, the way. You have to give up purpose, clarity, you have to be okay with being seen as a fool and you will gain the connection to source.

This may sound abstract, connection to source. What is Lao trying to achieve here if anything? As I said in the beginning of this essay, the Tao Te Ching feels like a manifesto. But for what? Against what? We see parts of the what in this chapter: letting go of the learnings. Historically Lao Tzu lived in a time of Confucianism. If he rebelled against something, it feels he is rebelling against the rules, titles, structures of Confucianism. But rules, structures, and living according to conventions is of all times. This is what I think Lao Tzu is rebelling against. He is promoting a life that is more natural with less rules, more human with less power structures, more personal power and less hierarchical power.

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Dennis Hambeukers

Design Thinker, Agile Evangelist, Practical Strategist, Creativity Facilitator, Business Artist, Corporate Rebel, Product Owner, Chaos Pilot, Humble Warrior