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)
Two chapters ago, Lao Tzu introduced the virtue of non-competition, what I called not-competing competing, by saying of the Master, “Because she competes with no one, no one can compete with her.” I said, then, that we would cover this practice in more detail in upcoming chapters. First, Lao Tzu had to talk about how all of his teachings could be distilled down into three teachings, or treasures. These are simplicity, patience, and compassion. These three explain the virtue of non-competition. But in today’s chapter, Lao Tzu reveals just a little more of what he means.
He begins by listing four different vocations. That of an athlete, a general, a businessman, and a leader. And he goes on to explain how each of these seemingly dissimilar people embody the virtue of non-competition, when they are at their best. I have considered these all, one by one, and I can’t help but see how self-evident it should be that what Lao Tzu is saying, regarding them, is true.
I never was much of an athlete; but whenever I have competed in any sport, I always gave it my best, hoping my opponent was doing the same. What satisfaction could I possibly have in besting an opponent who wasn’t at their very best? When competing in any sport, the point isn’t just to win, it is about the competition, the play. It is a test of ability, of stamina. Even if you lost, if you did your best, that should be reward enough. Isn’t that what we were taught as children? Winning, getting that ribbon or trophy, while certainly a motivator to do my best, wouldn’t mean nearly as much if I thought my opponent wasn’t in it to win it.
For the general, however, the game is a lot more serious. Strategy plays a huge role. That is why, for a general to be at his best, he must get into his enemy’s mind. What is he thinking? What is his strategy? What does he want to achieve? What’s going to be his first move, and then his next and next? If I do this, how will he respond? We will discuss military strategy more, tomorrow, so I will save further discussion on the best general until then.
When I think of the best businessman, I start getting just a touch nostalgic about my own father. He was a businessman. I worked in the family business for a couple decades. Now, my father wouldn’t have called himself a good businessman. At the end of his life, he wasn’t having lots of happy thoughts about what he had accomplished as a businessman. I tried to reassure him about just how great he was. After all, he did put three kids through college. But more importantly, and certainly more relevant to today’s chapter, he genuinely cared about, and wanted to serve the good of the community in which we lived. One thing that always makes me wax nostalgic for small mom and pop businesses in communities all over the world is how they always seemed to intuitively understand that what was good for their community was good for them.
My father never complained about fair competition. That is, competition where no one was favored over another. But we had a huge problem with governments (be they local, county, state, or federal) intruding in the market to favor certain businesses over others. It was my father who introduced me to free markets. This was a mythical place where local businesses competed freely with each other for local customers’ money, without anyone getting special favors, essentially monopoly power, granted to them by governments. Yes, I called it a mythical place. But it is a place, none-the-less, that I would like to see realized.
And, of course, we have the now familiar return to how to be the very best leader. What more needs to be said, that hasn’t already been said? The very best leaders are the ones that know how to follow the will of the people they are leading. I suppose that some will say this is moronic. These are the very people that we should never trust to lead us. Those that think people are too stupid to know what is best for themselves. But leaders aren’t rulers. Rulers only want to impose their own will. Leaders are those that know what the people want and show them the way to achieve their goals. The difference is so profound I think it was superfluous for me to even have to say it. Unfortunately, we have become so accustomed to being ruled, that some, mind you, only some, can’t imagine how good life could be without rulers. That is the first thing rulers seek to take away when they get into power. Our imagination. If I am not careful, I am in danger of going into full rant, here. Better move on.
When Lao Tzu says these four people, being their very best, are embodying the virtue of non-competition, he is very clear that it isn’t because they don’t love to compete. That is why, instead of calling it non-competition, I call it not-competing competing. They love to compete. But they do it in the spirit of play. They are like children. Once again, Lao Tzu is returning to one of his favorite metaphors for expressing harmony with the Tao. When are you most in harmony with the Tao? When you play like children.
I was talking about feeling nostalgic just a little bit ago. But, I really get nostalgic when I look back at pictures of myself and my brother and sister when we were children. Or, when my own daughter and son were children. I remember back to how we played. How much fun we had. It was when we didn’t take life so very seriously. When we didn’t throw a huge tantrum because we lost a game. Or, they got more than me. I like to remember when I was at my very best as a child, because that is my model for being in harmony with the Tao, today.