Zilu, Zeng Dian, Ran Qiu, and Gongxi Chi were sitting with Confucius. Confucius said: “Forget for a moment that I’m your elder. You often say: ‘Nobody recognizes our talents.’ But if you were given the opportunity, what would you wish to do?”
Zilu eagerly replied first: “Give me a middle-sized state wedged between powerful neighbors that is under attack from invading armies and gripped by drought and famine. If I were to govern it, within three years I would give its people courage and set them in the right direction.”
Confucius smiled at him: “Ran Qiu, what about you?”
Ran Qiu replied: “If I was allowed to run a territory of sixty or seventy or, say, fifty to sixty li, within three years I would secure the prosperity of its people. As for ritual and music, they would have to wait for a true leader to take over.”
“Gongxi Chi, what about you?”
“I’m not saying that I would be able to do this, but I would like to try: in the ceremonies at the Grand Ancestral Temple, such as a diplomatic conference, wearing a ceremonial cap and robes, I would like to act as a junior official.”
“And what about you, Zeng Dian?” Zeng Dian plucked one final chord of the zither he’d been playing and put it down by his side. He replied: “My wish is very different than those of my three companions.”
Confucius said: “What harm is there in that? After all, each one is simply speaking from his heart.”
Zeng Dian said: “In late spring, after all the spring clothes have been made, I would like to go out together with five or six companions and six or seven children to bathe in the Yi River, enjoy the breeze on the Rain Dance Terrace, and then return home singing.”
Confucius let out a wistful sigh and said: “I’m with Dian!”
After the other three followers had left, Zeng Dian stayed behind and said: “What did you think of their wishes?” Confucius said: “Each was indeed speaking from his heart.”
Zeng Dian asked: “Why did you smile at Zilu?” Confucius said: “You should govern a state according to ritual, but his words showed no such restraint. That’s why I smiled.”
“But wasn’t Ran Qiu also talking about governing a state?” “Of course. Have you ever seen ‘a territory of sixty to seventy, or fifty to sixty li?’”
“And Gongxi Chi? Wasn’t he also talking about running a state as well?” “A diplomatic conference in the Grand Ancestral Temple! What could this be but an affair of state? And if Gongxi Chi were there merely to act as a junior official, who could possibly be qualified to act as the senior one?”
Sit back in a comfortable chair, close your eyes, and ask yourself the question: “where do I want to be in five years?” Visualize the scene and savor the feelings of excitement and anticipation that come over you. It doesn’t matter whether you see yourself working in a high-powered job or simply “enjoy(ing) the breeze on the Rain Dance Terrace”. That’s for you and only you to decide. It’s your dream. It’s your life.
When you have a complete picture, open your eyes, go sit down at your desk, and ask yourself the question: “how can I get there in five years?” Then put pen to paper and write down the steps you need to take in order to achieve your dream.
Without a clear execution plan to anchor it, the dream will float away from your grasp like so many of the others you’ve had in the past.
This article features a translation of Chapter 26 of Book 11 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 11 here.
(1) Zeng Dian (曾皙) was a friend of Confucius and the father of the follower Zengzi (曾子), one of the leading proponents of Confucius’s teachings after the sage’s death.
(2) There has been a lot of speculation over why Confucius shares the same dream as Zeng Dian of “enjoy(ing) the breeze on the Rain Dance Terrace” rather than, for example, expressing a desire to achieve his goal of returning China to its glory days under the Duke of Zhou. Perhaps Confucius is implying that if he had time to enjoy the pleasures of life this would mean that he had already accomplished that objective.
I took this image of these 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.