Success and the Tao


Derek, the title of your book, The Tao of Success, is a bit puzzling to me. Shouldn’t the Tao be more about spirituality rather than the pursuit of success?


The book addresses this question in its introduction, so the best way for me to answer is to present an excerpt from the relevant section:

There are those who feel strongly that the Tao is diametrically opposed to the quest for lifelong success. They may have studied Eastern philosophy previously, and some of them may say, “there is no success or failure in the Tao” or “ultimately, success has no meaning” or “there is nothing to do in seeking success, because you are already successful.”

These expressions all seem quite profound, and yet if you delve into Chinese culture, you will discover that there are no common sayings that match them. The Chinese people are very much success-oriented. They will gladly discuss cheng gong zhi dao (the Tao of success) with you, but if you try to convince them that it is ultimately meaningless, you will only puzzle them. They may point to the parent working hard to build a family, or the kung fu master practicing rigorously for years to perfect a skill. These honorable individuals certainly do not believe they are already successful, or that they have nothing to do.

How can this be? How can Chinese people themselves not understand the basic concept of wu wei, the essence of nonaction in the Tao? Haven’t Taoist thoughts permeated every aspect of the culture for centuries?

The simple answer is that the Tao that is usually presented in the West is not the same as the ubiquitous Tao of the East. The version we see has been distorted by the language barrier. Wu wei does not mean nonaction, and some of the teachings we end up with are more like the fortune cookie or chop suey—widely assumed to be Chinese but are in fact invented in the West.

The truth is that there are deeper teachings of the Tao that go beyond the meaningless nature of everything. Most people never get exposed to them, so some will automatically assume that the lack of meaning must be the highest form of wisdom. In actuality, it is only the entry point.

The Tao tradition has a story that illustrates this:

Once upon a time in ancient China, there was a young man who was so awestruck to learn about the emptiness of existence, he could not stop talking about it. He told anyone who would listen: “When you get to the bottom of it all, you realize nothing has any intrinsic meaning.”

One day, a sage heard him discussing this topic with his friends. “Everything is meaningless,” he insisted. He challenged them to refute his statement, but his reasoning seemed so strong that no one could do it.

The sage joined them and asked the young man: “Why do you suppose that is? Why is everything meaningless?”

The young man said: “Why ask why? Reason is also meaningless. Perhaps there is no reason at all.”

“There is always a reason,” the sage said. “Everything is meaningless because that is exactly how it should be. It has to be that way because its void is what frees you to create your own meaning. The emptiness of a vessel is what gives it usefulness. Existence is a blank slate that invites your creative contribution.”

It was as if a light came on in a dark room. Everyone gained a piece of enlightenment that day. The young man also became aware that he had a lot more to learn. His path on the Tao was just beginning.

It is exactly the same with success. What you have here is an open invitation to create your own meaning and contribute your creativity. Make use of the emptiness and fill it with your unique, personal definition of the good life. Your path on the Tao of success is just beginning.

Derek Lin
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