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: