Leadership Lessons from Confucius: why do you learn?

why do you learn?

Confucius said: “In ancient times people learned to improve themselves. Nowadays they learn to impress others.”
子曰:「古之學者為己,今之學者為人。」

Why do you learn? To improve yourself or to impress other people? Do you imbibe the latest leadership wisdom because you want to become a better manager or because you want to make sure that you’re fully armed with all the latest buzzwords when you make your presentation at the next senior management meeting?

Perhaps it doesn’t really matter what your motives are for learning as long as you’re doing it. New knowledge and ideas will sharpen your thinking and give you fresh perspectives on issues you’re facing no matter why or how you accumulate them. Except of course that you’ll benefit so much more if you’re hitting the books because you’re genuinely interested in a topic rather than if you’re simply going through the motions because you feel you have to bone up on it.

Spend more time exploring what your true passion is. It may take a while, but once you find it you’ll be too engaged to even think about why you’re learning more about it. The benefits will be extraordinary – not just on this single aspect of your life but the whole of it.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 24 of Book 14 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 14 here.

(1) Confucius regularly harks back to the purported purity and wisdom of the ancients in the Analects. Indeed, his entire philosophy is based on the idea of returning people to a no-doubt-mythical golden age when everyone lived in perfect harmony with each other and the way. As he saw it, the key to restoring this exalted state was to encourage everyone to learn from the greats that made the distant past such a peaceful and prosperous place.

I took this image at the Temple of the Duke of Zhou in Qufu. The duke was Confucius’s great hero and role model as a result of his tireless efforts to the establish the foundation of the fledgling kingdom of Zhou while acting a regent to the young King Cheng. You can read more about the temple here.

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