Leadership lessons from Confucius: the pursuit of perfection

pursuit of perfection

Confucius said: “Yan Hui has just about achieved perfection, but he lives in constant poverty. Zigong is never satisfied with his lot and engages in trading and speculation. He frequently succeeds in his business ventures.”

Poverty isn’t necessarily a price you have to pay in order to be virtuous. Indeed, it can be very difficult to stick to the right path if you can’t pay the bills.

You don’t necessarily have to compromise your morals in order to become wealthy either. Indeed, you have a greater chance of success if you stick to your values. Be sure to remember, though, to you use your riches productively for the overall benefit of society. That new multi-million dollar yacht you’ve just bought to impress everyone will soon lose its luster when someone else has one that’s even bigger and shinier.


This article features a translation of Chapter 19 of Book 11 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 11 here.

(1) It’s difficult to know what point Confucius is trying to make here. Although he greatly admired Yan Hui for his passionate pursuit of perfection, he obviously wasn’t entirely comfortable with the harsh price his favorite follower had to pay for it with his poverty-ridden existence. On the other hand, he wasn’t entirely comfortable with Zigong’s business endeavors either, but greatly admired him for his integrity and loyalty. Even though Confucius wasn’t motivated by the pursuit of wealth, he had no interest in leading a life of poverty like Yan Hui. Wealthy followers like Zigong and Ran Qiu are said to have given him financial support when he needed it to maintain a comfortable lifestyle.

I took this image of these two ancient Zhou dynasty ritual vessels at the new Confucius Museum in the sage’s home town of Qufu. You can read more about the museum here.

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