For more years than I care to remember, I was a quite senior executive in a large corporation. I was consistently successful at managing large, complex projects, and got on very well with my people. To ditch humility for a moment, it did seem to me that they held their boss in a good deal of affection.
What I never told anyone was that I was running things based on Taoist principles.
Now, let’s get one thing straight. I am absolutely, to the very core of my being, a rationalist materialist. I think that the physical universe is all there is. Whether we will ever understand it, or indeed, can understand it is another matter. But I do not — physically can not — believe in the mystical or ineffable. Everything can be effed eventually.
Taoism, like most belief systems, has accreted a large layer of fairy-story, superstition, and ritual. This is not where I’m coming from.
The origin of Taoist philosophy is the collection of sayings usually called the Tao Te Ching. It is supposed to be the work of a single sage, Lao Tzu, (which just means “Old Sage”) who was an older contemporary of Confucius. But quite possibly, the two books of the Tao Te Ching may simply be an anonymous collection of “wise sayings” written down some time before 300 b.c.
While I do find a kind of poetical appeal in the mysical parts of the Tao Te Ching, it’s the practical wisdom that I used in real life.
I love this one (Ch. 60):
Governing a large country
is like frying small fish.
Too much poking spoils the meat.
But then I never did get to govern a large country. Chapters 63 and 64 are good though:
Act by not acting;
do by not doing.
Enjoy the plain and simple.
Find that greatness in the small.
Take care of difficult problems
while they are still easy;
Do easy things before they become too hard.
Difficult problems are best solved while they are easy.
Great projects are best started while they are small.
The Master never takes on more than he can handle,
which means that he leaves nothing undone.
When an affirmation is given too lightly,
keep your eyes open for trouble ahead.
When something seems too easy,
difficulty is hiding in the details.
The master expects great difficulty,
so the task is always easier than planned.
Things are easier to control while things are quiet.
Things are easier to plan far in advance.
Things break easier while they are still brittle.
Things are easier hid while they are still small.
Prevent problems before they arise.
Take action before things get out of hand.
The tallest tree
begins as a tiny sprout.
The tallest building
starts with one shovel of dirt.
A journey of a thousand miles
starts with a single foot step.
If you rush into action, you will fail.
If you hold on too tight, you will loose your grip.
Therefore the Master lets things take their course
and thus never fails.
He does not grasp on to things,
thus never loses them.
By pursing your goals too relentlessly,
you let them slip away.
If you are as concerned about the outcome
as you are about the beginning,
then it is hard to do things wrong.
The master seeks no possessions.
He learns by unlearning,
thus he is able to understand all things.
This gives him the ability to help all of creation.