The No. 1 Key to Finding Our Human Strength

Michael Puett is the Walter C. Klein Professor of Chinese History in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations and Chair of the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. He is the recipient of a Harvard College Professorship for excellence in undergraduate teaching. Christine Gross-Loh is a freelance journalist and author. Her writing has appeared in a number of publications including The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and the Huffington Post. She has a PhD from Harvard University in East Asian history.

WomanRunningonBeach_400When we think of being powerful, we think of being steadfast and immovable, able to withstand the brute strength of life’s curveballs and give sage advice to those in need. But what if the best way to be strong was to be pliable? Being able to respond nimbly to adversity in life is crucial to success, and if you’re not flexible in the face of challenge, you can snap. From The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us about the Good Life.

We often assume—because this is what we’ve been taught—that to be influential we have to be strong and powerful like the tall oak in the forest. We have to assert ourselves convincingly and even bend other people to our will.

But there is another recipe for influence to be found in Chinese philosophical texts such as the Laozi, also known as the Dao de jing. It derives from appreciating the power of seeming weakness, understanding the pitfalls of differentiation, and seeing the world as interrelated. Rather than think that power comes from strength prevailing over strength, we can understand that true power comes from understanding the connections between disparate things, situations, and people. All of this comes from an understanding of what the Laozi calls the Dao, or “the Way.” The sapling prevails because it is close to the Way.

But a sapling, in the end, is just a sapling. It sways with the wind and grows without consciousness. We human beings can do far more. We are capable of not just understanding connections but also making new ones to generate entirely new realities and new worlds. Being the architects of these worlds is how we become powerful.

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