Leadership lessons from Confucius: grow and blossom

grow and blossom

子曰:「苗而不秀者,有矣夫!秀而不實者,有矣夫!」
Confucius said: “There are some plants that grow but never blossom; there are others that blossom but never bear fruit.”

The odds of building a successful startup are extremely low. According to various estimates only around one in ten make it. That doesn’t mean you should give up on your dream of entrepreneurial success, but that you should be well aware of the risks before you embark on your venture and make sure that you’re prepared for the challenges ahead.

The odds of building a unicorn are even lower. Again, that shouldn’t deter you from going ahead with your endeavor, but it does mean that you should guard against becoming intoxicated by the glowing press coverage and excited investor attention that you receive. One day you’ll have to prove that you can deliver on all the hype that people are buying into.

If you do happen to beat the odds and achieve great success, take a little time to treasure the moment and show your appreciation to everyone who helped you climb to the top of the mountain. Then get back to work. As the pace of change accelerates and more and more competitors grow and blossom around you, there’ll be even taller peaks for you to scale in the years ahead.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 22 of Book 9 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 9 here.

(1) A key message in Confucius’s teaching is that no matter how assiduously you work to improve yourself, success isn’t guaranteed. As he explains in this passage, some plants “grow but never blossom” and others “blossom but never bear fruit.” His point is that you should focus on the process of self-cultivation itself because of its intrinsic value rather than to achieve specific outcomes such as great wealth or a powerful official position. If that happens great; but it shouldn’t be your primary source of motivation.

I took this image at the Temple of Confucius in Yilan, Taiwan. You can read more about the rather convoluted history of this temple in this excellent article by Josh Ellis here.

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