Leadership lessons from Confucius: purpose and meaning

purpose and meaning

子曰:「默而識之,學而不厭,誨人不倦,何有於我哉?」
Confucius said: “Quietly absorbing knowledge, learning and yet never growing weary, teaching and yet never becoming tired – how can any of these be difficult for me?”

Confucius was very fortunate in finding his passion early on in life. As a young boy he became fascinated by ritual objects and developed a lifelong love of learning the ways of the ancients and sharing this knowledge with anyone who showed even the slightest inclination to listen to him.

Perhaps even more importantly, he also had the determination and courage to pursue this passion and sustain it even during the most difficult periods of his life when his repeated attempts to persuade the ruling class to adopt his teachings were met with deaf ears and uncomfortable silences. For him, studying and teaching were a true vocation rather than a job or a duty. His claims that he never encountered any difficulties or became tired when hitting the books or lecturing his students should come as no surprise.

Not many of us are lucky enough to turn a childhood interest into a lifelong passion. We drift from school to college and the world of work more because it’s expected of us than out of a strong sense of purpose. No wonder there are so many articles, books, podcasts, TV shows, and ten-thousand-step programs purporting to show us how to inject greater meaning into our humdrum lives!

No matter what the self-styled experts may tell you, purpose and meaning are not something that you can pick up from a short course or a Ted Talk. They need to be drawn from deep inside you and cultivated through a constant process of action and reflection.

Even if you’re at a much later stage of your life than Confucius was when he started on his path, that shouldn’t discourage or deter you from seeking a renewed sense of purpose and meaning. Understand, however, that it isn’t a decision that you should take lightly. Great dedication and commitment are required to undertake this journey.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 2 of Book 7 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 7 here.

I took this image at the Temple of Confucius in Changhua, Taiwan.

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