The Master said: “At fifteen, I applied myself to learning. At thirty, I set my course. At forty, I had no more doubts. At fifty, I understood how the world works. At sixty my ear was attuned. At seventy, I followed all my heart’s desires without overstepping the line.” (1) (2) (3)
Do you have a personal development path? How do you see yourself growing over the next few decades? Will you be able to achieve the same level of contentment that Confucius claims to have reached in this famous snapshot that he composed of his life?
Of course, it’s relatively easy to look back on your life and fit its key milestones into a favorable narrative with the benefit of hindsight like Confucius has here. But it’s much more difficult to lay out plans for how you want to develop as a person in the future and the skills and faculties you will need to hone in order to achieve your objective.
Difficult but not impossible. And highly desirable too if you want to make the most of the rest of your life and not turn into some grumpy old git boring everyone to death with your constant harking back to the good old days!
This article features a translation of Chapter 4 of Book 2 of The Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 2 here.
(1) Some commentators see a divine element to the phrase 五十而知天, which literally means: “At fifty, I knew the will of heaven.” But since Confucius shows little interest, not to mention no signs of belief, in spiritual affairs in his extensive teachings, I see its meaning to be a lot more prosaic as in “the way the world works.” Another possibility would be “the hand of fate or destiny.”
(2) The phrase 六十而耳順, which I have translated as “At sixty my ear was attuned” is a little strange and has befuddled both Chinese and western commentators alike. Its literal meaning is exactly as I have translated it, but it is possible that the last two characters have been corrupted during transcription of the text.
(3) The character 心 (xīn) can also be translated as “heart-and-mind.” I have translated it as “heart” for the sake of simplicity.
I took this image at the Temple of Confucius in Beijing.