Leadership lessons from Confucius: perseverance and perspiration

perseverance and perspiration

Confucius said: “Let’s take piling up earth to build a mound as an example: even if I stop when I only need to pile on one last basket of earth, I have still stopped. Let’s take filling a hole in the ground as another example: if I have emptied the first basket of earth, I only need to keep on emptying more in order to continue to make progress.”

It doesn’t matter how much progress you’ve already made if you give up before achieving your goal. The responsibility for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory rests on your shoulders alone. You have no right or reason to blame anyone else.

It doesn’t matter how little progress you’ve already made if you keep on working towards your goal. You’ll surely encounter some tough challenges along the way, but if you’re armed with the right mindset you’ll overcome them and reach your target.

No matter whether it’s losing weight or building a business, perseverance and perspiration are the key to long-term success. You won’t get very far without knuckling down and putting your nose to the grindstone.


This article features a translation of Chapter 19 of Book 9 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 9 here.

(1) Confucius certainly doesn’t sugarcoat the process of self-cultivation by comparing it to building a mound or filling a hole in the ground. It’s a grueling, backbreaking task that requires unstinting effort and dedication! While Confucius can lay out the steps you need to take, only you can decide whether you want to undertake it. He leaves the choice up to you.

(2) To Confucius’s great delight, Zigong likens the process of self-cultivation to “carving and polishing stones” and “cutting and grinding gems” in 1.15. In 8.7, Zengzi advises that anyone who chooses to follow this path “must be strong and resolute because his burden is heavy and his road is long.” As for Confucius, in 9.17 he sees it as akin to a stream that flows “never ceasing day and night.” Let’s just say that while they may be accurate, none of these metaphors are particularly alluring.

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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