One of Harvard’s most popular courses is, perhaps unexpectedly, about Chinese philosophy. I think perhaps it has something to do with the promise professor Michael Puett makes on the first day of class.
“If you take these ideas seriously,” Puett famously declares to the more than 700 students taking his course, “they will change your life.”
As Puett and I explain in our new book The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life, 2,000-year-old Chinese ideas are still life-changing because they reveal that many modern assumptions about who we are, the world we live in, and how to achieve a life of purpose and meaning are fundamentally inaccurate.
You’re hardly alone if you believe that you must look within to discover who you are. After all, that’s one of our most common modern beliefs.
But ancient Chinese philosophers would say there’s a danger in seeking to be true to yourself in order to live an authentic life.
Why? It’s because there is no such thing as a true self. If that’s what you seek, you’ll search forever.
After all, we aren’t singular, unified selves. Every interaction and experience pulls a different side of us to the surface. We shift when speaking with a sibling, a boss, a friend, a stranger. We respond differently when we’re on a work call, with a friend on a vacation, when comforting a child, when fighting with a partner.
Rather than seeing humans as true, authentic selves, Chinese philosophers saw us instead as messy, contradictory entities bumping up against other messy, contradictory people in an unstable and capricious world.
By seeing ourselves as messy rather than true, we can open ourselves up to more possibility and a truly “changed” life. Instead of thinking of real change as something big and profound that can only be initiated by our “true self,” these teachings suggest that greatness is a result of diving into the messiness of the everyday and doing what you can do right now.
Here are a few ideas:
1. Set the table.
After a long, hard day at work, you’re hardly in the mood to set the table with your favorite placemats, nice dinnerware, or a vase of fresh flowers. You’d rather plop down on the sofa with some takeout.
But Confucius taught the value of doing “as if” rituals. By living your life “as if” it were different from what you feel or what you want to do, it actually becomes different. Small rituals like sitting down to dinner as if you were your own favorite guest rejuvenate us. Playing pretend becomes reality.
2. Skip the heart-to-heart talk.
It happens over and over: Your mother makes a critical comment, you dig in your heels, she keeps going, and you blow up. Conventional wisdom tells us open and honest communication heals conflict and strife. We have to express how we honestly feel, right?
Nope. The real problem is that you’ve fallen into a pattern and see each other in entrenched roles: In this case, your mother is the nagging parent and you are the stubborn child.
Expressing yourself honestly can do more damage than good by keeping you both stuck. To get out of this pattern, focus on it instead of on your feelings. Behave in opposition to your “gut instinct.” Changing your response is the best way to occasion a different response from your mother.
Part of her is compelled to parent you. But don’t appeal to that side like a child. Act like an adult (with a change of tone, a smile, or a question) to engage a different side of your mother. These little things will create new, healthier patterns of interaction over time.
3. Smile at a stranger.
That smile reinforces a crucial lesson: We are influenced by the smallest things other people around us do. Our mood can be affected in microseconds by the smile, or frown, on a passerby’s face. Smiling, regardless of how you feel, starts a positive ripple effect in the moods of people you encounter.
This isn’t so much about cultivating loving-kindness and good intentions within as about behaving differently so that we get to a place where we will actually feel differently. Sometimes it’s OK—necessary, even—to fake it till you make it.
4. Go to the door to say hello when your partner comes home.
If you’re busy making dinner or on your phone when your partner walks through the door, you might just wave or call out a greeting from the other room while you continue your activities. But when you stand up, go to the door, and offer a hug, you are sending a very different message.
You’re behaving “as if” you are not busy or preoccupied and your partner is worth a loving, attentive welcome. It’s another example of the value of living “as if” rather than being true to how you feel in the moment. By pretending to feel differently than you do, you effect a change in your partner, as well as yourself, eventually forging a better connection between the two of you.
5. Don’t become mired in self-acceptance; instead, do something you’re not good at.
All your life, you were probably encouraged to play to your strengths. If you were athletic, you gravitated toward sports; if you were a bookworm, you majored in English. But take this sort of thinking to an extreme and you end up with a life focused on your talents—a life in which you stop doing things that don’t fit your notion of “who you are.” Combine this with our culture’s focus on self-acceptance and you’ll see how limiting a perspective this can be.
Try taking a break from who you think you are. If you think you’re terrible at languages, try a French class. Hate the outdoors? Go camping. The purpose is not to make yourself better at the things you think you’re bad at. The point is to get in the habit of living your life as a series of breaks, which changes you over time.
You develop a new tolerance for living outside your comfort zone and a capacity for stretching yourself. You also, of course, discover new things about yourself. Out of all this are born endless opportunities for growth.
6. Ditch the personality test.
You probably see a pattern by now: It’s dangerous to focus on finding “the real” you. So while it’s fun (and validating) to discover that you are an introvert, an extrovert, or an INTP on the Myers-Briggs test, beware of taking such labels at face value.
Our Chinese thinkers would have been quite surprised by our modern-day fondness for analyzing our personalities. If you think of yourself as a free spirit, a hothead, or an intimacy-phobe, you can label yourself into a self-fulfilling prophecy. You behave as you’d expect yourself to behave based on what you’ve discovered you are.
But this is hardly the “true” self—it’s emotional habits and patterns at work. Take those labels with a grain of salt, and live in such a way that you are constantly redefining yourself and finding new ways to describe yourself. Constantly cultivate yourself to go beyond who you think you are.
7. Take a deep breath.
Breath, as most of us know, can be enormously calming. But it also helps to ground us before a stressful situation, like a high-stakes meeting. The philosopher Laozi would say that stilling yourself isn’t just self-calming; it prepares you to tune into the mood of everyone you’re about to interact with.
By being focused on everyone rather than just yourself, you get better at reading the room, tuning in to the subtleties of other people's reactions, and adjusting your own responses to those reactions. This strategy ensures that you’ll get the best out of everyone, not just yourself.
8. Cancel that yoga retreat.
A yoga retreat, spa weekend, or vacation can be rejuvenating and can leave you with a temporary high even after you return to your “real” life. But be wary of depending too much on external events and isolated experiences for happiness. Instead, think of how you can start feeling better in your everyday life (which is where we spend most of our time anyway).
One Chinese philosophical text, the Inward Training, teaches that balancing your emotions by balancing your body allows you to avoid being held hostage to life’s little ups and downs, like a flat tire, an angry email, or even the high (and subsequent letdown) of a fantastic weekend away.
Concentrate on the small adjustments that keep your mind and body in balance at every moment, making sure not to veer too far in any one direction. This includes eating well and in moderation (no junk food binges, but no obsessing about green smoothies either), keeping your energy flowing with physical exercise and good posture (stop slumping on the couch), breathing deeply, and remembering that constant balance in the body brings balance back to the mind, no matter what happens in life.