7 Pieces of Advice from Confucius
Chinese philosophy was one of the reasons I became interested in learning Mandarin. And you can’t talk about Chinese philosophy without quoting the most misquoted Chinese philosopher, Kong Fu Zi. You may know him by his latinized name, Confucius.
Turns out, a lot of his most popular quotes floating around the internet weren’t ever said by Kong Fu Zi. No wonder he’s one of the most misunderstood philosophers.
Quotes aside, if you want to learn what Kong Fu Zi was really all about, you could try and read The Analects, a collection of books based on conversations with the master compiled by his followers.
Or you could just read this blog post.
With a little help (okay, a lot of help) from the book The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us, by Michael Puett, I distilled some of Kong Fu Zi’s most useful wisdom:
1. You should sweat the little things
When you think philosophy, the big questions come to mind. “Do we have free will?” and “what’s the meaning of life?” kind of universal questions we often turn to philosophy for answer.
But Kong Fu Zi was much more interested in the little questions. “Did you call your mom today” and “what will you make for dinner” kind of questions.
The Analects is full of examples of Kong Fu Zi being overly occupied with seemingly insignificant details:
“He would not sit until he had straightened his mat.”
“He would not teach while eating.”
To Kong Fu Zi, these little things were actually pretty major because first, they’re the only things under our control and second, how can you even begin to tackle the big questions sitting on a bunched-up mat?
King Fu Zi was less about pondering and more about acting. Action over contemplation. Doing versus inquiring.
It’s not that he didn’t think the big questions were important, just that they weren’t as important as this one:
“How are you living your life on a daily basis?”
(And you can quote Kong Fu Zi on that!)
2. You don't have an “authentic" self
Thousands of self-help books have been written about finding your “authentic self,” as if there were some already formed, solid you deep inside that you have to chisel out. You hear people talking about speaking their “truth,” or expressing their “authenticity.”
To Kong Fu Zi, all this talk was nothing but a pile of soggy wontons.
He would argue that you don’t have an authentic self. That when you try to define yourself, you limit your potential.
If you think you’re a shy person, a person who struggles to learn, or even a person who loves cantaloupes, you’d be mistaken.
Because all those things you’d hang your identity on are nothing more than just your emotional dispositions or preferences interacting with the environment at a particular time and place. Change any of those factors and your so-called identity would change too.
For example, you might have been shy because you weren’t among the right group of your peers, you might have had a hard time learning because you didn’t have the right teacher, and maybe that was just a really good cantaloupe!
To Kong Fu Zi, you’re a complex and ever-changing individual, never just one thing— and that’s the best part.
Because that means you’re never stuck just being “who you are,” but can actively change for the better all the time.
3. Sometimes you must act as if, and reality will follow
In Kong Fu Zi’s time, people weren’t considered equal. There were strict hierarchical lines separating classes, some even mandated by Heaven (and who could argue with that, right?)
Yet in very small ways, by saying “please” and “thank you” and holding doors for others (efforts we would call today “common courtesies,” which weren’t common at all back then), Kong Fu Zi treated everyone as if they were already equal. In doing so, he helped people see what it was like to feel that way, too.
Over time, he would help create a world where for the most part and in most circumstances, people treated others as equals.
One could argue that he was only able to achieve this through his influential position, and that would be partially true (he did hold some political roles in his time), but he would counter that by saying that it was through changing minds at the individual level that he could shift the way society worked.
And he did that through acting as if, treating people as equals when society wouldn’t.
In other words, he practiced what he preached, and in doing so helped shape his reality and society at large.
What changes could you achieve even in your own life if you acted as if instead of as is?
4. Say “how are you?” “please” and “thank you” even when you don’t feel like it
Kong Fu Zi’s as if principle extended to his ideas on relationships.
Remember all those “pleases,” “thank yous,” and holding doors? You can also add saying “how are you?” when you really don’t care and saying “I love you” even when you’re annoyed with your partner.
Kong Fu Zi would call these rituals, in the sense that they don’t reflect the reality of our actual feelings at the time (apathy or annoyance). Instead of acting from what we feel at any given moment, we act out of scripted customs, or common courtesies.
Yet instead of making us all out to be insincere phonies, these scripted customs, Kong Fu Zi argues, not only contribute to a greater good (a society where people are courteous to each other, a relationship founded on mutual respect), but they also free us from acting from our volatile emotions to acting more from our values.
What would the world be like if everyone acted out of their emotional state at any given time? How much would you get done? What would your relationships be like?
5. You learn who you are by being in the world
When other philosophers were going on meditation retreats, Kong Fu Zi doubled down on his duties.
While some believed they could cultivate their best selves by getting away from the world, Kong Fu Zi knew that interacting with the world—with children, with duties, with meetings, with chores, with chopsticks—was the only way to actualize our potential, discover our values, deepen our relationships, and find work we love.
Kong Fu Zi taught that our self-development is an outward-facing process. Even spirituality was to be practiced out in the world and not in the temples.
In early China, it was believed that human beings were born with certain dispositions based on astrological notions, but these weren’t rigid. They could be molded and nurtured. Kong Fu Zi believed one could only do that only by showing up in life, not escaping to a cave.
How are you showing up in the world?
6. Doing hard things is the way to happiness
Nobody credits Kong Fu Zi for the self-improvement movement, but you could say he started it.
Now, his idea of self-improvement was far from anything we would consider self-care today. It has nothing to do with being pampered, spa days, or goopy face masks.
It’s about doing hard things and becoming better versions of ourselves in the process. Not only better, but happier. Things like:
– Working on your relationships to become a better father, mother, son, daughter, uncle, student
– Mastering an art or skill that you’re passionate about, like learning Mandarin
– Taking on a fitness goal and putting in the sweat to see it through
– Having that difficult conversation you’ve been putting off
– Taking a Mandarin Intensive Course
– Doing anything you’ve been procrastinating on (writing that book, making that art piece, joining that class, sharing your feelings, asking for a promotion)
Some of these things are the hardest to do, and the work isn’t ever quite done. But then again, these are the same things that ultimately bring us the most joy and self-fulfillment.
What hard thing will you do this week?
7. Just like the Michael Jackson song, you should start with the person in the mirror
“Be the change you want to see in the world.”
No, Kong Fu Zi never said that, but he would have had that bumper sticker. His favorite song? Probably Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror.
And whether you identify as a man, woman or non-binary being, the wisdom applies.
We often think that only big ideas and grand actions have the power to change the world. That only the biggest, most powerful interest groups wield all the influence.
We look in the mirror and think we’re too small to make any positive impact.
Kong Fu Zi would agree.
He would also say that that’s exactly where your strength lies. Then he would remind us that all those big ideas and actions started as tiny sparks and tiny steps, all because someone looked in the mirror and decided to make a change. And that someone is you.
That's a wrap
Above all, Kong Fu Zi was a man of action. His philosophy was founded on doing and his ideas of acting as if to shape your reality, seeing rituals as a way to consistently act from our values and not our emotions, and cultivating (and even finding) ourselves through interacting with the world are just as useful today as they were back in his heyday around the 6th century BC.
How would you apply his wisdom today? Do you agree or disagree? We want to hear your thoughts.