Leadership lessons from Confucius: young people

young people

Confucius said: “We should hold young people in high esteem: how do we know that the next generation will not match the current one? But those who reach the age of forty or fifty without distinguishing themselves are no longer worthy of being treated with esteem.” (1)

It can be all too easy to criticize young people for their weaknesses and foibles. How could they possibly be as smart and hardworking as we were at that age? After all, we didn’t enjoy any of the comforts and conveniences that they do now. The only phone we had was at home and we weren’t allowed to use it very much because calls were so expensive. Now, of course, the young spend all their time with their heads buried in the screen of their super-expensive devices. Let’s not even think about the quality of the coffee we were forced drink in pre-barista days or the crappy food. We had things far tougher than they have. They don’t even know they’ve been born!

Except of course our parents and grandparents said the same things about us when we were growing up. Thanks to the evils of (take your pick) rock music, heavy metal, drugs, football thuggery, and permissiveness, the end of civilization was nigh!

Just as we somehow managed to survive and thrive amidst the madness and uncertainty, today’s young people will do fine.


This article features a translation of Chapter 23 of Book 9 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 9 here.

(1) There have been many scholarly debates over whether the phrase 無聞 (wúwén) means “without making a name/reputation for themselves” or “without learning anything.” I have split the difference, so to speak, by translating it as “distinguishing themselves.” Confucius was rightly suspicious of whether having a good public image is automatically a sign of true accomplishment. See 12.20.

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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