Leadership lessons from Confucius: if wealth was worth pursuing

if wealth was worth pursuing

子曰:「富而可求也,雖執鞭之士,吾亦為之。如不可求,從吾所好。」
Confucius said: “If wealth was worth pursuing, I’d go after it even if it meant working as a lowly official. But if not, I’d rather follow my own interests.” (1) (2)

If you pursue a career or set up a business with the sole aim of making money, the chances are that you’ll end up feeling empty and disappointed. Even if you succeed in bringing in the moolah, you’ll be so focused on keeping the geyser gushing that you won’t have time to enjoy the comforts of the lifestyle it brings.

Better to focus on building a career or business that you enjoy and allows you to make the best use of your talents and knowledge. You might not have quite so much money in the bank, but you’ll feel much more contented and fulfilled.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 11 of Book 7 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 7 here.

(1) Although Confucius worked as a bookkeeper and clerk early on in his career, he clearly wasn’t as motivated by money as many of his fellow members of the thrusting middle class known as 士 (shì) [knight or scholar] that were making their way in business and government bureaucracy during the Spring and Autumn Period. As a senior justice official in the government of Lu, he must have been presented with numerous opportunities for personal enrichment by eager supplicants seeking to curry his favor but stuck to his principles. Perhaps it was these experiences that made him seriously question whether the pursuit of wealth could ever be truly honorable.

(2) The phrase 執鞭之士 (zhíbiānzhīshì) literally means “officials who carried the whip”. It refers to wardens who watched over the city gates and markets and kept everything in order when senior officials paid visits to their locality.

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

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