Leadership lessons from Confucius: a higher purpose?

higher purpose

子曰:「人之生也直,罔之生也幸而免。」
Confucius said: “If you take the right path, you’ll enjoy a happy life. If you deviate from it, the only way that you’ll enjoy a happy life will be out of sheer luck.”

What would life be like without a higher purpose than mere survival? A lot simpler in many ways given that all you would have to worry about would be finding something to eat and some shelter at night. Except of course, you would be subject to the whims of nature in all its savagery and beauty. Indeed, instead of being able to decide where to go and what to eat, you’d be forced to follow the seasonal migration patterns to escape the extreme weather and keep your stomach full on whatever food was available. In short, life wouldn’t be quite so much fun as those who urge us to return to the land that we came from would have us imagine. And probably a lot shorter and more brutal as well.

Life with a purpose is a lot longer and in most cases much more enjoyable. Especially one that gives you the freedom to decide what that purpose is. If it’s to accumulate more wealth than Croesus, you can stride along Wall Street in a sharp suit or saunter along Sand Hill Road in a Patagonia fleece. And if we ever feel the need to assuage your guilt about your luxurious lifestyle, you can always do a spot of meditation or yoga or, if we’re part of the select few, zoom across the desert for some Burning Man spiritual enlightenment. That should be enough to compensate for accelerating social and economic polarization, shouldn’t it? Not to mention all the totally-legal tax avoidance you carry out.

After all, it’s by hard work, talent, and world-changing vision that you’ve achieved all this. There’s not a single hint of luck about your success. There’s absolutely no way it will come back and bite you. And even if it does, there’ll always be the taxpayer there to bail you out.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 19 of Book 6 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 6 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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