Imagine a pyramid. At its apex are the people in your office who are so far “in the zone” that they are not even conscious of it. They could include the CEO, a brilliant engineer or designer, or perhaps even a salesperson who lives for nothing more than the daily customer chase. Or, perhaps more likely, they could include nobody at all for achieving such a rarified state of natural spontaneity is almost impossible.
According to Laozi, these are people of “superior virtue” (the character 德 is sometimes also translated as “power” or “moral power”). Just below them are ones of “inferior virtue” who are extremely competent but not quite “in the zone”. Indeed, their frenetic attempts to achieve success can lead to them be more narrow-minded than they should be and to leave too many loose ends.
Next come people of “superior goodness” who work selflessly for the good of the company and their colleagues. They are the ones who walk the walk, and shouldn’t be mixed up with the group underneath them who Laozi contemptuously dismisses as people of “superior righteousness” because they use fine words and impenetrable jargon to hide their true character and motives. Let’s hope that you don’t have to list too many of those!
Right at the bottom are the box-tickers, the petty bureaucrats who love nothing more than wielding their miniscule levels of power to stop you from doing that little bit extra to please your customer or from going home a little early because your child is sick even though you have completed your daily work.
In a pot shot at Confucius, Laozi caustically describes such individuals as people who love “propriety”: the often unwritten rules and customs that govern official ceremonies and the daily social interactions between people. Let’s hope that you don’t have to list too many of those, either, because if you do it means that the rot has already set in and it’s time to look for another job.
To finish off the exercise, why not mark where you stand in Laozi’s hierarchy? Or better still the level you are aiming for. Just remember to pick the fruit rather than the flowers along the way in order to attain it.
A person of superior Virtue is not conscious of their Virtue;
So they truly possess Virtue.
A person of inferior virtue never loses sight of their Virtue;
So they lack Virtue.
A person of superior Virtue takes no action;
So they leave nothing undone.
A person of inferior virtue takes action;
So they leave something undone.
A person of superior goodness acts without an ulterior motive.
A person of superior righteousness acts with an ulterior motive.
A person who adheres to the rites acts, but when people do not respond,
They stretch out their arms and force them to comply.
Therefore, when the way is lost virtue appears;
When virtue is lost, goodness appears;
When goodness is lost, righteousness appears;
When righteousness is lost, the rites appear.
Now the rites are a superficial expression of loyalty and faithfulness;
And the beginning of disorder.
A person who only grasps these last three principles can see only the flower of the way;
And will lapse into stupidity.
Therefore, the great person concerns themself with the thick instead of the thin;
The fruit instead of the flower.
Therefore, they reject the latter and accept the former.