Career Planning and the Dao

You’ll swim fastest if you go with the current. You’ll accomplish more in life if you work with the flow of things rather than against it.

The ancient Chinese called this the Dao. The ineffable becoming of things to which we are all linked. The height of wisdom, they believed, was to work with this Way, not struggling against it.

At first, this idea may seem to be simple passivity. That to “go with the flow” means to surrender control and let the forces of nature steer you randomly. Worried about becoming a swimmer crashed on the rocks downstream, this idea troubled me.

But a better understanding is leverage. That an almost invisible action, applied at the right moment, can subtly guide the becoming of things to do almost all the work for you.

There is a story about Duke Huan of Qi who had a secret meeting to invade a state that was becoming rebellious. A servent, seeing the conversation between the king and the general, although not hearing it, inferred this plan and shared the secret. By sharing the secret, the general could no longer launch a surprise attack, losing the advantage and thus avoiding starting a war altogether.

Wu wei

This concept is called wu wei in Chinese, sometimes translated as non-doing or effortless action. The principle being that wisdom means taking barely perceptible actions when things can be easily altered instead of trying to brute force a large change when it is too late.

This concept has had a lot of influence in how I plan my career and my life.

I don’t set long-term goals. If I ever needed to do a job interview, it would be hard for me to answer the question of where I see myself in five years, because I have no idea.

Instead, I try to go with the flow. Not being passive, but trying to apply small, minimal effort in key places to create shifts in direction downstream. Instead of demanding a certain outcome, being open to subtle opportunities to shift directions with smaller effort.

This approach doesn’t mean that there is no work involved. That’s also a misunderstanding. Instead the effort flows naturally out of the flow of tiny actions made earlier.

This is where the swimming analogy breaks down. Because in it, there is a difference between the flow of water and your body. But in an appreciation of wu wei, there is no separation. Your actions also flow in the same way, and just as a small push in the stream can pull you into a different fork of the river, so can a small push create different currents within yourself.

A good example is an elegantly designed habit. If designed well, it fits nearly effortlessly in your life. As it gets repeated, it creates its own current of behavior so that it becomes self-sustaining. If designed poorly, it requires constant willpower to sustain as you struggle against yourself.

Career Moves and the Dao

I think people underestimate how much successful people implicitly use this principle of wu wei in their careers and businesses.

Derek Sivers, who built CD baby into a multi-million dollar giant, originally started when the service he was providing for himself as a musician became popular with some of his friends. While its growth and success depended on Derek, the original idea was pulled along by the environment.

Although I believe it’s incorrect to view successful people as simply being lucky, it’s I think also incorrect to assume that success is caused by a force of will. Instead it comes from recognizing where the water is flowing, and making small adjustments that result in big differences downstream.

Applying this idea can be hard. After all, it is certainly more difficult to find ways to solve problems with tiny actions than major ones. The first idea is often the one of brute force. It takes considerable wisdom to spot the solutions of wu wei.

But I think that presents the first step. Knowing that you are looking for actions which will work with the flow of things in elegant ways makes more more sensitive to those opportunities. They also attune you to areas where you are not working with a flow—where you catch yourself trying to aggressively swim upstream. Spotting these moments can force reflection on whether there might be other alternatives.

Inevitability

The neo-Confuscian scholar Wang Yangming points out, “When blessings and calamities comes, even a sage cannot avoid them.” Thus, suggesting that our abilities to struggle against the flow of things are often in vain. Instead, he suggests a sage should concern himself with the “incipient activating forces in things” and handle everything in accordance with that.

The insight here, I believe, is that often our great strugglings don’t work. Trying to force a business idea to become successful will not make it so. Instead, it is by recognizing subtle points of contact, the “incipient activating forces in things”, that we can make progress.

The most powerful insight of productivity isn’t the self-help bromide that we can accomplish anything we set our minds to, but rather that our willpowers are incredibly weak. But in recognizing that weakness also admits a strength. Because if thrashing around trying to make progress won’t work, then you must instead look for small changes that can have big ripples downstream.

  • Sam

    I feel like this basically sums up the Idea that you shouldn’t “force” yourself to do anything because ultimately it won’t lead to much and if it does lead somewhere the cost will be too great. i.e forcing yourself to do exercise you don’t enjoy will cause you to associate exercise with negative emotions and the “grind” reducing the likelihood you’ll do any down the line, so even if you do get fit and lean the likelihood that you will maintain such results will be slim. On the flip side engaging in exercise that is enjoyable and only doing so when you “feel” like it will result in slower progress but whatever ground is made will be more permanent as the act of exercising becomes an end unto itself rather than a means to an end.

  • Sam

    I feel like this basically sums up the Idea that you shouldn’t “force” yourself to do anything because ultimately it won’t lead to much and if it does lead somewhere the cost will be too great. i.e forcing yourself to do exercise you don’t enjoy will cause you to associate exercise with negative emotions and the “grind” reducing the likelihood you’ll do any down the line, so even if you do get fit and lean the likelihood that you will maintain such results will be slim. On the flip side engaging in exercise that is enjoyable and only doing so when you “feel” like it will result in slower progress but whatever ground is made will be more permanent as the act of exercising becomes an end unto itself rather than a means to an end.

  • hello

    WHat does bromide mean in this text.?

  • hello

    WHat does bromide mean in this text.?

  • Mirage

    I live by Daoism, Non-action is so powerful.
    Very few people understand the simplicity of the Dao De Jing, I often wonder why.

  • Mirage

    I live by Daoism, Non-action is so powerful.
    Very few people understand the simplicity of the Dao De Jing, I often wonder why.

  • nina

    Scott, I’ve been reading you for a couples of years now and I find your writing so further mature, centered, almost minimalistic and may I say beautiful; thanks !

  • nina

    Scott, I’ve been reading you for a couples of years now and I find your writing so further mature, centered, almost minimalistic and may I say beautiful; thanks !

  • Genesis

    “Self-help bromide” haha that was awesome.

  • Genesis

    “Self-help bromide” haha that was awesome.

  • EMMANUEL VIRGILLIO YUSUF

    Sam,
    I really enjoyed your comment. It’s like a mind opener to me. It summarizes Scott article above. And you broaden my understanding on the article. Thanks.

  • EMMANUEL VIRGILLIO YUSUF

    Sam,
    I really enjoyed your comment. It’s like a mind opener to me. It summarizes Scott article above. And you broaden my understanding on the article. Thanks.

  • Ram

    In a way this article reminds me of the book “Who moved my cheese” with relation to going with the flow but also identifying the flow.

  • Ram

    In a way this article reminds me of the book “Who moved my cheese” with relation to going with the flow but also identifying the flow.

  • Sam

    Thank you for the kind words!

  • Sam

    Thank you for the kind words!

  • Martin Thomason

    I’ve been reading Scott’s articles for a few year now. Really helpful and practical articles. This concept really resonated with me; so I want to say thank you for bring you view and ideas with us. And with this particular article, it’s changed the way I live my life.

  • Martin Thomason

    I’ve been reading Scott’s articles for a few year now. Really helpful and practical articles. This concept really resonated with me; so I want to say thank you for bring you view and ideas with us. And with this particular article, it’s changed the way I live my life.

  • saki r

    its amazing article about everyone need to shine in their article. thanks for sharing about the wonderful blog with us. after read about your lines will get the confidence. keep sharing.

  • David Sánchez

    Thank you Scott, I found this article really interesting. Is there any resource (book, for example) that you would recommend to learn more about how to apply wu wei to career planning or how to design habits in an elegant way?

  • David Sánchez

    Thank you Scott, I found this article really interesting. Is there any resource (book, for example) that you would recommend to learn more about how to apply wu wei to career planning or how to design habits in an elegant way?

  • Pedro P8

    The struggle is to explain wu wei without looking passive. You did it in a great way.

  • Pedro P8

    The struggle is to explain wu wei without looking passive. You did it in a great way.

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