Voice of the Past: Confucius on Success and Failure

Confucius in Tokyo

A friend of mine in Chicago has always reveled in the balance and interdependence between success and failure. A musician by vocation, he has taken honest jobs by day to perform his art on his own terms by night. His zen-like ability to knock down those conventions has always been inspiring to me.

In recent weeks, I have discovered a kindred spirit in another dialectical thinker, the ancient master Kong Fu Zi, know in the West as Confucius. Most Americans have heard of him, the guy who came up with the Golden Rule some 500 years before Christ. The official biography lists Confucius as a real polymath–a genius at government, music, literature, and philosophy among others.

Put another way, he was a smarty pants. He was the type of bureaucrat who had seen it all. He knew how to do it better than his boss and he had no problem saying so. And so, Confucius spent a lot of time on the outside of the governments of his communities looking in. While on the outside, he managed to mentor students seeking to understand how government works. And in those interactions, Confucius became famous as a teacher first and foremost.

When it comes to the balance between success and failure, Confucius observed a few things:

  •  “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”
  • “By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.”
  • “When you have faults, do not fear to abandon them.”
  • “Success depends upon previous preparation, and without such preparation there is sure to be failure.”
  • “A man who has committed a mistake and doesn’t correct it, is committing another mistake.”
  • “Be not ashamed of mistakes and thus make them crimes.”
  • “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.”
  • “If you make a mistake, do not be afraid to correct it.”
  • “Things that are done, it is needless to speak about … things that are past, it is needless to blame.”
“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” – See more at: http://quotationsbook.com/quotes/author/1644/#sthash.3IHYEhLU.dpuf
“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.” – See more at: http://quotationsbook.com/quotes/author/1644/#sthash.3IHYEhLU.dpuf

“When you have faults, do not fear to abandon them.” – See more at: http://quotationsbook.com/quotes/author/1644/page=2/#sthash.eJsz2gP1.dpuf

Time proved Confucius right. After his death, his Analects became de rigueur for Chinese bureaucrats, and his concepts about people, their roles in society and respect inform much of the Chinese ethos to the present day (despite the best efforts of the Chinese Communist Party to suppress it). Balanced with the Taoist system of Lao Tsu, Chinese philosophy is comprehensive about life, its meaning, and its lack of meaning. In my own experience, I have often found the most genuine, the most sincere and the most commendable of people to be those who can admit mistakes, learn from them, and not be ashamed of their ignorance. All too often, the drive for and the displays of “success” without the acknowledgement of failure seem to me, hollow.

Or, as my Chicago philosopher-muse friend might say:

“Failing to succeed or succeeding to fail. This encompasses all my beliefs and values.”

Photo Credits:
Confucius: Tim_Arai / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND
Norman Rockwell. The Golden Rule. Mosaic located at Thanksgiving Square, Dallas. http://idtmi.blogspot.com/2011/07/little-thanksgiving.html
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