I first heard of Taoism from an entrepreneurial mentor, Ron Morris, one of the purest human beings I’ve ever met. He discussed it by talking about yin and yang – balance – and how it could be extrapolated to many facets of the startup world, even hinting that it could help people live better lives.
Years later, I learned about the central book of Taoism: the Tao Te Ching, or Book of the Way. Apparently Tim Ferriss reads a chapter every morning. Rick Rubin and Josh Waitzkin both recommend it according to Tim’s post, “The unusual books that shaped 50 billionares, mega-bestselling authors, and other prodigies.” It helped Bruce Lee shape his identity and Alan Watts formulate his ideas.
The Tao Te Ching is a terse puzzle that illuminates desire, society, success, failure, death, and nature. According to legend, it was written in 600 BC by the sage Lao Tzu. Its simple words initially sound nonsensical, but they provide a framework to manage the uncertainties of the universe while living a happy and successful life.
I decided to read five separate translations for each chapter, then combine them in a modern, plain-English summary with my own notes and asides. I half-jokingly refer to it as the “Mark Thomas Miller version”. I used the following translations:
- Ursula K. Le Guin’s New English Version. This is an easy read in the beginning, but can become abstract as you continue reading. Certain chapters are exceptionally beautiful, while others are so dense that it becomes hard to find takeaways without returning to other sources. I encountered a few phrases that might have been translated incorrectly.1
- J. Garon’s casual translation is extremely easy to read, but some of the language and chapters might be oversimplified. Several chapters are so simple, in fact, that you might just “agree” and continue onward, not taking time to reflect on their applicable meaning. It only covers the first 20 chapters, but it helped break the ice.
- Stephen Mitchell’s modern English version (also located here) becomes exceptional over time, even cascading into the territory of plain English. Sometimes, he takes liberties by glossing over or omitting important concepts (which makes it a great pairing for Gia-Fu Feng’s and Jane English’s translation), but it is still an enjoyable and profound read.
- Stefan Stenudd’s Taoistic translation reads similar to Stephen Mitchell’s, and it also contains an explanation of each chapter below the text. I appreciate that he also gives cultural context behind certain ideas. (The explanations can seem somewhat biased at points, but you could say the same thing about my notes.)
- Gia-Fu Feng’s and Jane English’s translation captures the essence of the Tao. I view it as a more literal compliment to Stephen Mitchell’s translation. It can be slightly harder to read until you’ve warmed up to some of the ideas in the book.
The Tao Te Ching teaches life philosophy that can make you a better, calmer, happier person. It’s applicable to this day and in direct contrast to most of what we learn in the Western world. Without further adieu, let’s get started.
Tao Te Ching: The Mark Thomas Miller Version
The Tao Te Ching is about Tao. For now, think of Tao as a principle that coincides with balance. It’s using the wind to your advantage instead of fighting against it. Instead of climbing the mountain, you walk around it. As you read, you’ll understand more. Tao goes far beyond just that.
This is concentrated ancient wisdom. No filler. You shouldn’t try to finish it in one sitting – most people only read a few chapters at a time.
The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao.
Our words lack potency. They bounce off of the ears that need to hear them the most. So if you want to help someone, you can’t tell them what to do – you need to embody it. If you cultivate a good life from living your own wisdom, others will follow suit. Sometimes, you have to explain things with experiences, not words.
Beyond the nature of instruction, this chapter also conveys that we all came from something, but we don’t know what that something was.
We’re all part of whatever this is. You, me, every object – we’re all parts of the same whole. But we name things – we split them up into individual items – and we cannot see them for what they are: part of ourselves.
You and everything else in reality have the same origin. We’re all part of the same object. We’re only different in name.
Since there is beautiful, there is ugly. Since there is good, there is bad. Since things can be hard, they can also be easy. Did you realize that this is a tool? You will soon learn to do by not doing. To teach without talking.
Soon, you’ll understand that this opportunity is everywhere.
Access the void.
Wei wu wei. Instead of doing, not doing. Action by inaction. You do nothing yet it gets done. Know when to punctuate your actions – when to do nothing to make things continue.
For instance: don’t prize rare treasures, and people won’t steal them. Don’t look at desirable things, and your mind will stay quiet. Don’t praise people that desire praise, and they’ll become uncompetitive.
Balance has existed forever. The sharp becomes dull, the light dims, knots become strings. Tap into this balance. Use it to accomplish what you want.
Nature isn’t good or bad. It just is. Remember that you can be neutral like nature. Nurturing, powerful, even frightening – qualities of being a force of nature.
Everything is a cycle: ups and downs and ups again. Even past death, we will decompose and feed other creatures, eventually becoming part of other living bodies.
So take comfort when you have downs, and prepare yourself when you have ups. These cycles are the natural order of the world, and you have nothing to fear. It is as natural as breathing.
If you can’t control something, why worry about it?
All your problems are simple at their core. Stop overcomplicating things.
Tackle the most important things first. The things you want to do.
Be there for others when they need you.
But don’t care what others think about you. That’s when you’ll get respect.
Everything in moderation.
Don’t go too far. If you drink too much, you’ll get drunk; if you keep sharpening the blade, you’ll blunt it. Find balance to avoid being consumed by something. Remember that too much of anything is bad.
Wealth, status, pride,
are their own ruin.
To do good, work well, and lie low
is the way of the blessing.
Sometimes, problems can’t be solved “forward” – you have to look at them from a different perspective. Instead of trying to succeed, look at what you’d need to do to fail, and avoid those things.
We usually think we need to do more to solve a problem. But sometimes, we just need to do less. To be a better leader, we manage less. To be a better worker, we don’t need to take credit. To have less stress, we don’t let our possessions own us.
Sometimes, society’s recommendations are downright wrong. Remember to always look at the opposite. It may provide you with an even better result.
clay makes a pot.
Where the pot’s not
is where it’s useful.
The space inside a pot – where the pot is not – makes it usable.
The space inside a room – where the walls aren’t – makes it usable.
Benefits can come from void, from absence.
Desire messes with your heart.
Thoughts mess with your mind.
The Master watches the world
but keeps focused on what’s real.
Don’t chase riches or competition. Focus on yourself, internally, and everything will handle itself.
Externally, don’t care what others think about you. Whether it’s positive or negative. Be comfortable in your own skin.
Internally, believe in yourself, but don’t be overconfident. Understand that you’re not right about everything.
Sometimes your senses can’t see what’s there.
Balance: you can’t hear it, hold it, or see it, but it’s in everything.
Wait until you’ve calmed down before you try to understand.
Wait until events have unfolded before you act.
And act without expectation.
You’re going to die someday. When you accept this, you will live in peace.
To give no trust
is to get no trust.
The best leaders are invisible. They get things done by making others believe they did it by themselves. They don’t give orders; they work alongside others. It’s a matter of “Doing without doing” from Chapter 3. The second best leaders are those who are admired; third, the feared; fourth and worst, the despised.
When society has problems, we think we can invoke words to make them better. A country in chaos is full of people calling themselves “loyal patriots”, but doing nothing.
Stop using words to conceal problems. Drop the empty facade. Stop using labels. Work together to look for real truths. Take real action.
Labels cause peoples’ eyes to gloss over. Telling somebody to be holy, altruistic, righteous – it doesn’t help them one bit.
See things plainly.
Forget the rules.
Explain things simply. Without big words.
Need little, want less.
You, alone, can live your life. You can choose what’s important to you. And society’s expectations of you? They’re worth nothing.
The Tao is like a cat: it will stay if you don’t try to force it.
Be broken to be whole.
Twist to be straight.
Be empty to be full.
Wear out to be renewed.
Have little and gain much.
Have much and get confused.
Have nothing to prove, and people will trust you.
Don’t compete, and you’ll have no competitors.
Be broken, and you’ll return to being whole.
Be whole, and you’ll return to being broken.
Only give your attention to one thing at a time. Commit 100% of yourself to any given task. When the wind blows, there is only wind. When it rains, there is only rain. Open yourself to this balance, trust your natural responses, and everything will be in place.
Don’t go too far in any direction.
Slow. Steady. Done.
If you rush, you’ll mess up.
The person who runs ahead of the back doesn’t get too far. The person who tries to shine by showing off dims his own light. The person who defines himself can’t know who he truly is. The person who clings to his work will create nothing that endures.
Do your job, then let go.
Before time, there was a serene, empty, solitary, unchanging, infinite nothingness. When even the sun and the water were part of the same homogenous mass. For lack of a better name, we’ll call it the Tao. And it still exists in everything today.
Man can exist because of the Earth. The Earth exists because of the conditions of the universe. And the universe can exist because of the conditions of the Tao.
The eagerness to act creates more problems than it solves. Wait until it is time, and then do what is called for. Nothing more.
Those with more power have more responsibility. Treat your own matters importantly, but don’t let them consume your life. When you’re safe, you’re safe.
Who are the Masters but the unskilled’s teachers?
Who are the unskilled but the Master’s task?
You hold the wisdom of previous generations, and you will continue to pass it on. Yet teaching can only happen when the teacher and student are both dedicated. If one side of the equation is unbalanced, the whole thing falls apart.
One thing that helps: let go of your need to manipulate your reality.
You see through a filter of what you want to see, or what you think others want you to see. The artist tries to copy others; the scientist can’t see through their intellectual abstractions; the traveller is so focused on arriving that they dread the journey.
Masters have dissapated their filters. The master artist follows their intuition. The master scientist looks at things from an entirely new perspective. The master traveller enjoys each step. The Master sees beyond judgements to the truth.
The world is formed from the void,
like utensils from a block of wood.
The Master knows the utensils,
yet keeps to the the block:
thus she can use all things.
Know things, but don’t believe they’re the only things to know.
Know how to use objects, but don’t let them define you.
Let go of your ambitions and they will manifest themselves.
Decay starts at growth.
All things in moderation. Never too extreme.
Avoid excess and extravagance.
Good leaders reach solutions, then stop. Solution without domination.
That goes for yourself, too. Don’t overthink. Don’t burn out.
Believe in yourself; don’t try to convince others.
Be content with yourself; don’t seek others’ approval.
Accept yourself, and the world will accept you.
Things that go against this Way meet an early end.
Maintain peace with others. Without peace, you cannot be content.
Fight as a last resort. Winning a war isn’t a time to rejoice. Battles are funerals.
His enemies are not demons,
but human beings like himself.
Leaders must understand balance. They should create institutions to help others, but know where their functions should stop. By growing, but not overgrowing, they can create the perfect society.
The most powerful people have control over themselves.
They don’t need external things to make them happy.
You can’t force someone to do something. They have to opt in.
Happiness doesn’t come from external circumstances.
Become adaptive so you don’t break. Whatever doesn’t change will be broken.
True balance isn’t ever achieved. We inhale and exhale, but our breath is never at rest in between. The two opposites are always working together to make us a functioning whole.
This change shows us that we’ll be immortal. Dead bodies decompose and grow into new plants which feed new creatures. We’re made from dead people too. Nothing ever stops changing, even if we try to stop it.
Fish should stay underwater:
the real means of rule
should be kept dark.
or more literally
Hide the weapons,
like the fish hides deep in the sea.
This can apply to militaries, business, and even personal affairs: never flaunt your weapons, your power. The unknown raises more fear than anything you could muster. In this case, not showing off does an even better job than showing off. (A great throwback to Chapter 3.)
People are scared of what they don’t know.
A quiet empire could be made of millions.
Like walking through deep woods at night. Your mind plays tricks on you.
You can turn your enemies’ minds against them.
If you didn’t desire anything, you’d be happy.
If people didn’t desire anything, there’d be peace.
Don’t cling to something, and it’s yours.
Deviating from the Tao makes us fall back on what we think is right.
When we don’t know what we think is right, we look to others.
When others don’t know, we look to traditions and recommendations.
Putting blind faith into tradition is the first step of our own descent into chaos.
Let illusions go. Step into the stark reality. Look at things for what they are.
Don’t concern yourself with fancy words. They’re facades that mask the core.
There’s life on Earth because of tiny events perpetuated by nature: warmth, water, air. Don’t take this for granted. When you throw it off balance, you are in danger.
The wisest people of power and wealth are humble.
A multiplicity of riches is poverty.
Do not strive for the shine of jade
but clatter like stone.
Everything moves in cycles. This cyclic principle rules our existence.
Think about the cycles in your life. Not just “A to Z”, but “A to Z back to A”. See how it all works together to create the fabric of your life. Think of how the pendulum swings to and from. The inhale leading to an exhale leading to an inhale. The days and nights. The seasons. Your mind, and your work, and your preferences, and how they all follow a cycle to center your life.
People are always reluctant to accept new ideas.
You probably thought the Tao was going to be spectacular, but that’s how it has hidden from you all this time. Its whites are stained. Its greats are unsophisticated. It accomplishes by not doing. So if you want to live alongside the Tao, taking advantage of this balance might be the first step.
Gain can lead to loss.
Loss can lead to gain.
When bad things happen, good things can fall into place. The same goes for the inverse.
If you feel alone, remember that you’re not. You are one with the whole universe. If you’re a leader, you may need to be an outcast from time to time, but you’re still part of the whole.
Nothing good can come of violence. Violent people will destroy themselves.
Know when not to do.
Live your advice, don’t just say it.
The profit in not doing –
not many people understand it.
Success or failure: which is more destructive?
We forget that life is the greatest treasure we’re given. We chase external factors to make ourselves happy without realizing that our life is more valuable than any of it. Don’t rely on money, recognition, and other external factors for fulfillment.
You can handle more if you’re not rigid.
Stay calm and clear. Allow yourself to be fluid.
Whoever can see through fear will always be safe.
You already have enough. Don’t get greedy. Stop desiring things and you won’t be discontent.
Answers come from within.
You don’t need to go anywhere to find them.
You don’t need to know everything. Not knowing keeps you open to new ideas.
Let things happen. Don’t try to stop them. This detachment isn’t indifference; it’s patience. You can resolve issues when you’re prepared to deal with them.
Be good to others, no matter how bad they are.
Put faith in others, even if they don’t have any.
Care for them like they’re your own children.
Some people die young, and others die old. Some peoples’ lives fly by because they’re busy, and they never stop to cherish anything along the way.
Only a handful of people walk through life as a visitor. They enjoy their time spent with life. When it’s their time to die, they’re ready. While they’re alive, they don’t worry about death.
Have without possessing. Do without claiming. Lead without controlling.
Rule over your mind.
Do the actions that are appropriate in the present.
Vices are always trying to get into our lives.
Turn away desire, harmful habits, harmful relationships, harmful foods, harmful substances… When you close the door on them, you can open the door for the right habits, the right people, the right foods, the right circumstances, and so on.
How do we know something is right? We have an internal compass. When we follow the compass, we don’t need to hit our heads against the wall. We can step back now so we can step forward later.
It’s easy to find the balanced path, but many people don’t stay on it. Check in every now and then. Make sure you’re still on the right path.
Remember that the world isn’t only about you. When we get too wrapped up in ourselves, we fail to account that our actions are impacting humanity as a whole. We either help the human organism or hurt it.
Don’t play zero-sum games. They lead to wasteful chaos and robbery.
To truly understand anything, you must experience it on your own. If others tell you, your understanding will pass. Seek experiences more than words.
To have an impact, you must live with balance, logic, and a clear mind. When you view others like you view yourself, view towns as you view your own, and view the world as your home, you will live in unity and compassion with others.
You need reasoning? Look inside yourself.
Don’t be rigid.
Don’t chase extremes.
Don’t expect anything.
Don’t look for validation from others.
It doesn’t matter what they think.
When you stop desiring, you can’t be seduced by vices. When you stop caring about honor, you can’t be humiliated. When you can’t be helped, you can’t be harmed. When you can’t be harmed, you’re a force of nature.
Do you really need to add more?
More structure means less speed. More laws lead to more dishonesty. More weapons produce more disorder. More repercussions increase the chance of a huge problem going unnoticed.
We must trust that people will do the right thing. To stop our systems at the right times. Because more can’t scale.
Give people more slack. They don’t want to be bossed around. They don’t want to be forced to do anything. Laws and logic fall apart inside their everchanging mind. Instead, the Master leads by example. Then people follow without intervention.
The open-minded hold no strong opinions.
Because of this, they can overcome anything.
Ruling a great country is like cooking a small fish: too much poking will spoil it.
Let go of your need to control. Then, you can sidestep the bad – or use it for good.
A large, great nation can realize its mistakes, correct them, and stay on the right path. It stays out of others’ affairs, and it remains modest. As such, it becomes the most powerful nation in the world. Everyone wants to trade with, ally with, and join it.
It realizes that yielding leads to harmony.
If it yields to a smaller nation, it will soon overtake it.
If it fights a smaller nation, it won’t be able to hold it.
Many things in life can be bought. Seek and offer the ones that can’t.
No matter how far you’re lost, you can always return to the Tao.
Everything that awes us is the result of tiny, compounded tasks.
Want to accomplish something great? Break it into tasks that will be easy for you.
Take tasks seriously.
Problems are tasks. You should never run from a task – just break it down into pieces. Decide what to do. Decide what to not do. Either way, it’ll get done.
Do things before they happen.
Prepare and prevent, optimizing for less reaction.
When you need to react, it’s just a matter-of-fact.
Don’t rush. Be patient. Take action by letting things flow naturally.
Things are easy to start and hard to finish - so treat the end like the beginning.
You have nothing, thus nothing to lose.
When people think they know, you can’t help them.
When people know they don’t know, you can.
So if you can empty a mind, you can fill it with truths.
Sometimes, the way to lead is not by transparency.
The art of leadership is not to be obvious about it.
Do what’s best for others, and they won’t oppose you.
Let your guard down, and they will too.
Your needs come last.
Because she competes with no one,
no one can compete with her.
Some people say these chapters aren’t applicable in the real world.2 But they only seem that way until you think about them. You’ll realize that there are just three simple ideas: compassion, moderation, and modesty.
Compassion allows you to be courageous.
Moderation allows you to be generous.
Modesty allows you to lead.
And a courageous, generous leader – isn’t that what you’d like to be?
A master in any field works in the spirit of play.
This gives them the ability to deal with others.
They don’t need to compete or earn. They just want to push themselves, learn more, and have fun. When they’re having fun, they’re in harmony with the way things should work.
Don’t engage your competition. If you do, overestimate them.
When you act alongside the Tao, few people will understand your motives. You’ll become a force of nature: bending and dodging instead of using brute strength. This can be valuable, and it can make you valuable as well.
Admit to yourself when you don’t know something.
The more you think you know, the less you’re right.
Don’t interfere with others; just look after yourself.
Structure your life to promote calmness. Calmness helps you think clearly and puts your plans into place.
There are a few things that will help. First, don’t take unnecessary risks. Second, don’t try to compete with others. And third, stop trying to control the things you can’t control. Practice letting things operate naturally without your interference.
Everything is always changing, so don’t try to hold onto anything. Even your life is about to be over, so don’t fear taking the actions necessary to develop the experiences you want.
Leaders don’t feast while their followers starve. They don’t gain while their followers lose. Otherwise, there is rebellion.
Don’t fall into the societal trap of jumping from experience to experience. Life is valuable. Don’t let your days pass without enjoying them.
Success comes to those who are malleable.
Know when to yield. When to avoid. When to dodge. When to go with the flow. When to adapt. For those who are stubborn are broken and killed. Those who are soft are shaped into something else.
The hard and strong will fall.
The soft and weak will overcome.
Reduce excess. Replenish deficiency. This is the natural order of the world.
Right words seem wrong.
If you want to accomplish something, be soft like water. Water is gentle and persistent, and it cannot break. If you try to force something quickly, you’ll burn out like a hard rock smashing into a target.
The inverse is also true. Beware of small, persistent things that destroy your life over time. These may be your own habits, or they could be the actions of others.
Few obstacles need to be destroyed. Most can simply be circumvented.
A wise leader never acts on emotion. Although they may have power, they don’t use it to isolate themselves. They share in the suffering of their followers. And they expect that some people will hate them.
People whose power is real fulfill their obligations;
People whose power is hollow insist on their claims.
Stop blaming others.
Everything that happens to you – whether it be good or bad – is your fault. Stop waiting around for others to help you, and stop complaining when they’re not making it easy for you. Take ownership. Solve your problems yourself.
If you spend your one chance on this earth in a mess of stress and anxiety, isn’t that a life wasted? What if you slowed down to enjoy it?
A true utopia isn’t futuristic: it’s just a country where people are living contently. They shun productivity in favor of simplicity. They cook good food, live in cozy houses, and derive their happiness from simple pleasures.
Don’t use pleasant words to mask painful truths. Don’t get angry at others. Don’t think you understand everything. Don’t force your will on others. Don’t focus on the things you desire.
Those principles will get you nowhere. For pleasant words obscure the truth. Anger divides you and makes it impossible to connect. Having knowledge without understanding is blind. Control over others breeds animosity. And focusing on your desires won’t help you get them – you must help others first.
So if you want to live a successful life, speak simply. Stay calm. Listen. Seek understanding. Lead by example. Help others get what they want.
The more you do for others, the more you have.
For instance, when many other translators translate a line as “Wise souls treat others like their own children”, Le Guin’s translation is “Ordinary people look after them. Wise souls are children”. That being said, she could be correct, and she does have spectacular prose in other chapters. ↩︎