When Confucius was in the state of Chen, he said: “Let’s go home, let’s go home! Our young people are full of fire and bursting with talent, but they have no idea how to use it.”
What is the single most important piece of advice that you would give to a gifted and ambitious young person who is about to take their first steps into the big bad world?
Mine is simply to be yourself. Don’t waste time trying to impress other people by saying what you think they want to hear and by doing what you think they want you to do. Naturally, that doesn’t mean you should ignore their advice, but after you have carefully considered what they have told you it’s up to you to make the final choice. After all, when it’s said and done it’s your life – and you should be the one who decides how to lead it.
I would also add that any choice you make comes with costs as well as benefits. Despite what some people may tell you, it’s impossible to have it all. What you need to focus on is achieving the right balance between competing demands and priorities so that you can keep the fire and talent of your youth burning brightly.
This article features a translation of Chapter 22 of Book 5 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 5 here.
(1) Confucius stayed in the small state of Chen for three years from 491 to 489 BCE during his period of self-exile from his home state of Lu. In 489 BCE when Confucius was 61 years of age, Ji Huanzi (季桓子), the chief minister of Lu, was ailing and advised his son Ji Kangzi (季康子) to recall Confucius to act as an advisor after his death. However, when he succeeded his father to the post, Ji Kangzi was persuaded by another minister to invite Confucius’s follower Ran Qiu (冉求) to take up the position instead. Realizing that his political career was over, Confucius resolved to focus on teaching the youth – though it would be another seven years before he finally returned to his native Lu seven years later at the age at the age of 68.
I took this image at the Tainan Confucius Temple.