The best athlete
wants his opponent at his best.
The best general
enters the mind of his enemy.
The best businessman
serves the communal good.
The best leader
follows the will of the people.
All of them embody
the virtue of non-competition.
Not that they don’t love to compete,
but they do it in the spirit of play.
In this they are like children
and in harmony with the Tao.
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 68, translation by Stephen Mitchell)
It was a couple chapters back that Lao Tzu said of the Master, “…she competes with no one, and no one can compete with her.” Today, Lao Tzu returns to this virtue of non-competition.
In order to understand what Lao Tzu means by the virtue of non-competition, we need to realize that Lao Tzu likes to use plays on words that are somewhat unfamiliar to our western minds. That is why, I think, that many will scoff at these teachings. They are nonsense! Or, they are lofty, but impractical. When he extols doing not doing, Wu-wei, which can literally be translated “doing nothing” he doesn’t really mean that we do nothing. What he means is that our doing is effortless. We do like we are doing nothing. This is how to flow with the Tao. When he extols knowing not-knowing, he isn’t praising ignorance, he is saying that we should know that we know nothing. We think and act as if we already know it all. That is true ignorance. Until we know that we don’t know, we can’t begin to know anything. Likewise, when he extols the virtue of non-competition, when he says the Master competes with no one and no one can compete with her, he doesn’t mean there isn’t any competition. What he is talking about is not-competing competing. Which is to say that we are to compete in a spirit of play, like children.
Over and over again, Lao Tzu points to children as our example of how to be in harmony with the Tao. Little children remind of us our beginnings, our primal identity. They are still virtuous, innocent, and full of energy and exuberance. They are in harmony with the Tao. Their actions are seemingly effortless. They know that they don’t know. If you doubt this, why is it that they are asking so many questions? And they love to play. We are the ones that push them to want to win. But what do they want? They want to play. By directing our attention to children at play, it is as if he is saying, “Look there, they do naturally what you, as an adult, have long ago forgotten.” That is the heart and soul of what Lao Tzu means by the virtue of non-competition.
Consider, for a moment, the best athlete in the world. They want their opponent to be at their very best. Think about this. What satisfaction is there in besting an opponent who wasn’t at their very best? Are we just in it to win? Or, are we in it to be the very best? If you don’t know the difference, you may have a warped sense of what true satisfaction can be. When children play, they are all in. They give it their all. They hold nothing back. And boy is it fun!
Now, consider the best general. They want to get into the mind of their enemy. To find out exactly what they are thinking. Like a good game of chess, you want to try and figure out, ahead of time, what moves they are going to be making. Then you can plan your own moves. In tomorrow’s chapter, Lao Tzu will be talking more about the military strategy of generals, so I won’t go into more detail, today.
What about the best businessperson? This is near and dear to me. I never was much of an athlete. And, I never had any interest in being a general. But I was raised in a family business. I was raised on the virtue of businesses freely competing with each other to earn their customer’s patronage. All these years later, and I consider myself a market anarchist. I want a market freed of State privilege and regulation. To me, no businessperson could possibly be their best, if they were either hampered by government regulation or subsidized by the State’s monopolizing powers. I am sure Lao Tzu would agree. He has often said that the best way to govern is to leave people alone. To Lao Tzu, the best businessperson will always seek to serve the communal good. When you put the community first, you will find your business will thrive. Every good businessperson knows this. The best embody it.
Finally, Lao Tzu comes back to leaders. He has already talked so much about how to be a great leader. But I don’t think he has used the word “best” yet. But here it is. And it isn’t going to be any surprise to anyone that has been reading along with me in the Tao Te Ching. The best leader follows the will of the people. Leading by following. Placing yourself below. Being content to serve as an example. Never using force, or manipulation, or control.
All of these love to compete! They just do it in the spirit of play, like children. That, my friends, is how to be in harmony with the Tao.