Leadership lessons from Confucius: know the way at dawn

know the way at dawn

子曰:「朝聞道,夕死可矣!」
Confucius said: “Know the way at dawn; die without regret at dusk.”

Don’t jump to conclusions! Take some time to think before rushing to judgment – no matter how tempted you are to open your mouth or tap away at your keyboard to enlighten the world with the brilliance of your insights.

At first sight, the meaning of this passage seems obvious: once you have finally found the true path you can rest easily and shuffle off this mortal coil safe in the knowledge that your quest for it has been worth all the struggle and pain.

Except of course, why would you be willing to “die without regret” so quickly just as you’ve reached the pinnacle of enlightenment? Why not stick around longer instead to use your newfound wisdom for the benefit of the greater good?

Or, to look at the question from an even more selfish angle, why would you want to know the true path in the morning if it means that you will die in the evening? Why the sudden hurry?

Multiple theories have been posited to explain what Confucius really meant with these words, though none of them seem particularly convincing to me. My own personal favorite is something along the lines of “if you learned the truth today after reflecting on the mistake you made yesterday, the mistake was worth it.”

A bit of a stretch perhaps – but it certainly chimes with Confucius’s emphasis on constant self-improvement and comes with the added benefit of giving you the chance to fight another day instead of having to face an immediate appointment with the grim reaper.

Note

This article features a translation of Chapter 8 of Book 4 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 4 here.

I took this image at the Taipei Confucius Temple.

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