Leadership lessons from Confucius: The Book of Changes

Book of Changes

子曰:「加我數年,五十以學易,可以無大過矣。」
Confucius said: “If I was given a few more years, I would devote fifty to the study of the Book of Changes so that I may be free from serious mistakes.”

Change is the only constant in life. Better to embrace it rather than to fight it. That means observing what is happening around you very closely and using every tool you have at your disposal to figure out how to ride the ride the waves that are rising from the oceans below and withstand the storms that are looming in the skies above.

Thanks to its ability to process and analyze massive volumes of data, AI promises to provide us with an amazing tool not just for predicting the future more accurately but for shaping it so that we can live happier, healthier, and more productive lives. Already it can help us to improve our health by analyzing measurements of our heat beat and other vital signs to identify potential problems so that they can be nipped in the bud before they become too serious.

As its capabilities improve and it understands us better, AI will be able to give us many more such “whispers in the ear” that will help us to improve the decisions we make in our personal, family, and professional lives. In short, it will function like a supercharged version of the ancient Chinese divination system featured in the Book of Changes (易經/Yìjīng) – creating a new form of oracular magic with computers, big data, and deep learning rather than yarrow stalks and the 64 hexagrams on a scope and scale that could never have been imagined when the classic was first conceived over 2,500 years ago.

It’s going to be fascinating to see what the implications will be.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 16 of Book 7 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 7 here.

(1) This is one of those passages in the Analects that has caused more controversy and speculation than is probably merited. The main point of contention is over the character 易 (yì), which most commentators believe refers to the I Ching (易經), otherwise known as the Book of Changes. However, some of a more puritanical bent were so appalled at the thought that the great sage would wish to study this esoteric text that they argued that the yi had been written incorrectly and that it should be the homonym 亦 (yì), an adverb meaning “also” instead. Although they buttress their argument by saying that the Book of Changes doesn’t appear anywhere else in the Analects, with the possible exception of Book 13, Chapter 22, it’s extremely unlikely that a man of Confucius’s intellectual curiosity wouldn’t have been interested in such a seminal text. Indeed, according to some accounts, Confucius loved the book so much that the strings his copy broke and the strips wood or bamboo that it was written on scattered because he had added so many notes to it. Substituting the yi for the yi, so to speak, would also involve a creative re-rendering of some of the syntax of the first part of the text. The alternative would be something like this: Confucius said: “Give me a few years until I have completed fifty years of study so that I will be free of serious flaws.”

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

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