Leadership lessons from Confucius: waiting for the right price

right price

Zigong said: “If you had a precious piece of jade, would you hide it in a box for safekeeping or would you try and sell it for a good price?” Confucius said: “I would sell it! I would sell it! All I’m waiting for is the right price.”
子貢曰:「有美玉於斯,韞 而藏諸?求善賈而沽諸?」子曰:「沽之哉!沽之哉!我待賈者也!」

Pricing is one of the trickiest tasks in business. Set it too high and you risk putting off potential customers. Set it too low and you risk leaving money on the table – not to mention attracting customers who don’t appreciate the full value of the product or service you are offering.

When starting a company or going freelance, it can be very tempting to set a low price or accept whatever your potential customer offers in order to get your business moving. The problem is that once you do this, it will be very difficult for you to obtain full value for your goods or services in the future. Better to hold out until you find someone who is willing to pay what you’re asking for. There’s no way you’ll be able to win a price war over the long term. There’ll always be someone who’ll be willing to go lower than you.


This article features a translation of Chapter 13 of Book 9 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 9 here.

(1) After his departure from Lu in 497 BCE, Confucius went to the neighboring state of Wei in search of employment at the court of Duke Ling accompanied by Zigong, Zilu, Yan Hui, and some other followers. By telling Zigong that he would happily sell the precious piece of jade at the right price, he is signaling that he is open to the right offer.

Even though Confucius eventually managed to secure a position at the Wei court, it did not pan out and he left soon afterwards. Subsequent visits to the states of Song, Chen, Cai, Chen (again), and Wei (again) proved to be just as fruitless.

The only offer of employment that Confucius received direct from a state ruler came from Duke Jing of Qi during a visit there in either 517 BCE or 505 BCE. Perhaps because of pressure from his other officials, however, the duke abruptly backed out of his commitment claiming in 18.3 that he was too old to employ the sage.

Confucius also received offers of employment from various unsavory characters looking to hire him to add credibility to their attempts seize power in Lu. Book 17 records three such incidents, involving Yang Huo in 17.1, Gongshan Furao in 17.5, and Bi Xi in 17.7.

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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