Leadership lessons from Confucius: nine hundred measures of grain

nine hundred measures of grain

Yuan Xian became Confucius’s steward and was offered a salary of nine hundred measures of grain but declined it. Confucius said: “Please don’t! Surely you can give it to your neighbors and the people in your village.” (1)

“What kind of salary package are you expecting?” This is one of the trickiest questions to answer in a job interview. Pitch the number too high, you risk pricing yourself out of the opportunity. Pitch the number too low, you end up feeling that you sold yourself short. Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place!

Answering this question becomes even more difficult when you are interviewing for a startup. Are you willing to work for peanuts in exchange for a pile of stock options that could up being worth a fortune or nothing at all? Choices, choices.

Whatever you decide, however, don’t decline a salary that you think you don’t deserve out of a misguided sense of hair-shirted or fake sense of propriety like Yuan Xian did when Confucius offered him a position as his steward. As Confucius points out to Yuan, even if you don’t want the money yourself, you can always use it to help those better off than you are.


This article features a translation of Chapter 5 of Book 6 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 6 here.

(1) The follower Yuan Xian (原憲) was over thirty years younger than Confucius. He was noted for the excessive, some might say ostentatious, zeal with which he pursued a path of fastidious purity. After Confucius died, he spent the rest of his days living in poverty as a hermit in the state of Wei. You can read more about him here.

I took this image at the Temple of Mencius in Zoucheng, a small town near to Qufu. You can read more about it here.

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