Once there was a young man who worked at a factory. His mentor, an old technician, taught him to talk less, do more, and never stop developing his skills in every aspect of the factory’s operation.
Ten years later, the old man retired, and the young man became a technician himself. He continued to do his work with the same dedication and diligence as he was taught.
One day, he visited with his mentor. The old man saw that he seemed unhappy, and asked what was troubling him.
The young man sighed and poured his heart out: “I have been following your instructions exactly all these years. No matter what I work on, I keep quiet and focus on the job. I know I have done good work at the factory, and I have learned all the skills that can be learned there. What I don’t understand is that the guys who don’t have my experience or capabilities have all been promoted, while I am still making as little as I did before, when I was your apprentice.
The old man asked: “Are you positive that you have become indispensable to the factory?”
The young man nodded: “Yes.”
The old man paced back and forth to think. After a while, he turned to the young man: “You must request a day off, using whatever reason you like. It’s time for you to give yourself a break.”
The young man was surprised by this advice, but the more he thought about it, the more it made sense. He thanked his teacher and left quickly to make a time-off request.
When he returned to work after his day off, the Manager called him into the office to tell him that things did not go well at the factory while he was gone. Others encountered many problems that normally would be handled by him, and they had no idea how to solve them. Realizing his importance, the Manager decided to promote him to the position of Senior Technician, to thank him and encourage him to keep up the good work.
The young man was grateful for his mentor’s wisdom. Surely, he thought, this was the secret to success!
From that point on, whenever the young man felt like he deserved more than what he was getting, he would take a day off. When he came back the next day, the situation would improve to his satisfaction.
This pattern continued for months. One day, the young man found that he was blocked from going into the factory. Much to his shock, he found out that his employment was terminated. He could not believe it. Not knowing what else to do, he went back to see his mentor, to try to figure out how things had gone so wrong.
“Why did I lose my job?” he asked with much wounded pride. “Did I not do everything as you instructed?”
“Actually, you did not, because you heard only half the lesson,” the old man shook his head. “You understood right away that no one pays any attention to a light bulb that is always on. It is only when it goes off that people suddenly take notice and realize they’ve been taking it for granted. You were so eager to apply this understanding that you left before hearing the second half.”
“Second half?” it began to dawn on the young man that perhaps he made a big mistake. “What was the second half?”
The mentor spoke slowly to make his point: “The second half, more important than the first, is the realization that if a light bulb goes off frequently, then sooner or later it will be replaced with one that is more reliable. Who wants a light bulb that no one can count on to provide illumination?”
One teaching we can immediately extract from this story is about the light bulb that is constantly on. Are there friends and loved ones in your life who are like the light bulb, always giving light but never really noticed by anyone? Have you taken them for granted because of their constant, reliable presence? What if they are no longer there one day?
Do not wait for such a day to suddenly realize how important they are. Give thanks today for the good fortune of having them in your life. Let them know you are thinking of them and send them an expression of your gratitude.
Also, think about how this teaching applies to you. Are you like the light bulb yourself, always on and therefore taken for granted? Are you the responsible one that others rely on to provide for them or bail them out of trouble? Have you unwittingly made others dependent on you, the way that the factory depended on the young man?
A common example of this is the parents who are overprotective of their children. Doing too much to shield kids from the challenges of life can result in the kids not getting the chance to handle problems on their own and learn from their mistakes. The best thing for such parents to do would be to mindfully, intentionally let go, and take a day off from the factory of nurturing protection. Only by doing so can they identify the gaps in the life skills that the children must master.
Another lesson we can extract from this story is about the importance of balance. Like so many of us, the young man started out assuming that since diligence was a good thing, more of it could only be better. He worked so hard that he never took a break, but this was not the Tao.
When you have too much of anything, you take yourself away from moderation, and closer to an extreme. Extremes always bring about negative consequences. The young man was unhappy because his unfailing diligence got him taken for granted, but this was far from the worst thing that could happen to him. In our society, many hard-charging individuals become so fixated with work that they neglect their relationships and their health. The ultimate form of this extreme could be observed in Japan back in the 1980s, when several high-ranking business executives died suddenly, even though they were in their prime and had no previous signs of illness. The Japanese called this phenomenon karoshi — death from overwork.
The other side of the coin is that too little diligence also brings about negative consequences. For the young man in the story, the negative consequence was unemployment. For us in everyday life, it can manifest as inadequate job performance, the loss of advancement opportunities, the lack of peer recognition, and so on.
Some people who study the Tao think one should work as little as possible to be more in tune with the Tao, but this is not the way the ancient sages looked at it. They knew employment was more than just a means to make a living. They understood that much of our identity was connected to the job we do, and they saw great honor in earning an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. To them, the true Tao was the right amount of diligence applied to doing a good job for one’s chosen profession. This is the balance we must seek in our lives.
Lastly, this story gives us a warning to not repeat the young man’s mistake. He did not gain a true understanding of the old man’s advice, and that was why the secret of his success turned out to be the key to his failure. This is exactly as explained in chapter 71 of the Tao Te Ching:
To know that you do not know is highest
To not know but think you know is flawed
The wisdom of Lao Tzu matches this story perfectly, and reminds us that those who possess a partial understanding but think they have everything all figured out are the most dangerous of all. Acting out of unjustified confidence, they can do a lot of damage to themselves and others. They become like the young man in the story, learning half the lesson, running off down the wrong path, and thinking they are following the Tao because they have mastered some sort of secret.
It is important for us to study the Tao, but it is even more important that we study it the right way. While there are those who believe there is no wrong way to go about it, this story and the Tao Te Ching prove otherwise.
The right way is not difficult or complex; it is simply an approach with patience and the appropriate amount of time invested into it, from beginning to end. Its mindset is open, receptive, and free of preconceptions. Its application in life is quiet, low-key, and moderate. It takes nothing and no one for granted. This is the Tao of learning about the Tao. Let us use it as the guiding light that is always on, always illuminating the path ahead… as we continue our journey.
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