Leadership lessons from Confucius: time flows like a mountain stream

time flows

子在川上曰:「逝者如斯夫!不舍晝夜。」
Standing on the bank of a stream, Confucius said: “Thus it flows, never ceasing day and night.”

Time flows like a mountain stream, never ceasing day and night. Before you know it, you’ve graduated from college and started your first job. In a few years, you’re married and buying your first house. After that, the kids come along and when you’ve raised them to adulthood you see them strike out on their own after graduating from college. Perhaps grandkids are somewhere on the horizon. Only time will tell.

Unfortunately, that great book you were going to write is still on the backburner because you’ve been far too busy to get round to it. The once-in-a-lifetime trip you’ve been planning with your spouse for so many years has to be put off for yet another one because the roof on your house has to be fixed. And if you’re not careful, you’ll also have to postpone your retirement because you don’t have enough savings to fund it.

Time flows like a mountain stream, never ceasing day and night. Make the most of it. You can’t get it back once you’ve lost it. Live every day as if it’s your last. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Be sure to focus on what’s truly important.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 17 of Book 9 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 9 here.

(1) Many commentators have interpreted this passage as another lament from Confucius regarding his failure to complete his heaven-ordained mission of restoring the empire to the golden age of the Zhou dynasty. Time is relentlessly passing him by, and there is nothing he can do about it. See 9.9 and 9.14 for similar sentiments.

(2) An alternative view is that the constantly flowing stream is a metaphor for the relentless process of self-cultivation. No matter what obstacles lie along its path, the stream never stops and always finds a way of overcoming them. So too must a follower of the way of Confucius keep on going and never give up – like Yan Hui in 9.11.

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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