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. There, he said of the Master, “Because she competes with no one, no one can compete with her.” I said, then, we would go into more depth about how to put this into practice, today. And, here we are.
First things, first. As with the practice of not-doing and not-knowing, the practice of non-competition isn’t really not competing. It is a way of competing, “a spirit of play” is how Lao Tzu describes it, today. It is competing without competing. We may need to remember back to when we were children, to fully understand this practice.
And, isn’t that just like Lao Tzu. Always referring us back to the way we were from the beginning. Lao Tzu often uses children as a metaphor for how to be in harmony with the Tao. Children instinctively know how to play. That is really what competing without competing is all about. It is us, adults, who train our children to take competition to extremes. Children just want to play. Leave them to it. Let them enjoy being children. Isn’t that what being content is all about? Instead, we make these “games” not near the fun, they used to be.
Competing without competing is a virtue. To put this into practice is to love to compete, but to do it in a spirit of play, just as if you were children again. Harmony with the Tao is the sweetest state we could ever want to be in. It is a natural state, for children; so, why not for adults, too?
It can be for us, adults, too. We just need to follow a few examples of other adults who have embodied the virtue of non-competition. Lao Tzu gives us four to consider, today.
The first is the best athlete. It makes perfect sense to start with this one, since athletes love to play games. When they are at their best, they embody the virtue of competing without competing, by wanting their opponents to, also, be at their best. Sure, we all want to win. But even more important, in the best of games, is that both sides played their very best. Somehow, that victory loses a little of its sweetness, or maybe a lot of its sweetness, when we know our opponent wasn’t at their best. You feel cheated. Sure, I beat them, today. But, what if they had been more on their game? Talk about disappointment!
But competing without competing doesn’t just involve fun and games. Sometimes your opponent is an enemy. And, the “game” is war. Here, the best general embodies the virtue of competing without competing by entering the mind of his enemy. I don’t know whether it would be accurate to say they want their opponent at their very best; but, I do know that knowing what your opponent is thinking is being able to be one step ahead of them. Perhaps, I can outmaneuver them. Or, perhaps, there is something even more important about entering their mind. It completely changes your own perspective, when you can see things from another perspective. Maybe, this dispute can be resolved, without the loss of unnecessary bloodshed. Lao Tzu lived in a time, much like our own, with lots of wars and rumors of war. He believes this virtue, in time of war, is particularly important. So much so, that we will continue talking about generals’ military strategy, in tomorrow’s chapter.
That brings me to my favorite way of thinking about competition, since I do believe, very strongly, in free competition in business. I have talked many times, before, of how I grew up in a family-run small business. My mom and dad had a small photo-finishing lab. I spent many hours with my dad in darkrooms. We couldn’t see anything. But we could talk. And, talk we did. My mom and dad are both dead and gone. But I will always cherish the amount of time I had talking with them. I learned so much, though not nearly enough. One of the things I gleaned, from talking with my dad in the dark, was how much he cared for our little community. I guess I will always have a soft spot in my heart for the little mom and pop operations, which are largely gone now, in our new economy. It is tough to compete when governments favor large businesses over small ones. But, does that put the good of the community first? Serving the communal good is how the best businesspeople embody the virtue of competing without competing. I am just a little nostalgic, for a day long gone, when small businesses in small towns were the norm. And, communities were more like communities, back then, too. Oh well. Enough of my trip down memory lane. On to my other passion.
Yes, we are back to talking about the art of governing, again. How does the best leader embody the virtue of competing without competing? By following the will of the people. With all my talk of nostalgia for the good old days in the previous paragraph, there is one thing I can rejoice about in the here and now. That would be the possibility of competing virtual governments. We shop around online, before ever actually buying anything, anymore. Why not be able to shop around for a government with which you can actually give your consent. What was impossible a few years ago, isn’t impossible now. Governments don’t have to be restricted to geographic regions. I should be able to be a citizen of any government in the world, or none at all, if that is what I prefer, not by having to physically move anywhere, but through governments freely competing online for my patronage. I talked, before, about so many people lacking imagination. And, believe me, I can already hear all of you naysayers saying that is impossible. You guys really need to work on stretching your imaginations. There have been quite a few impossible things that were made possible by dreamers willing to make them a reality. Leaders following the will of the people, by the way, doesn’t mean the majority of the people. That would leave a number of people not content. Like how things are right now. I want governments with the unanimous consent of the governed. And, there is no reason that can’t be achieved, when once we exercise our inalienable right to opt in, or opt out, of any of them.
That last paragraph was really designed to get you all thinking. Please, message me with questions and comments. Don’t settle for the status quo. The thinking that “we have never done it that way before” is only the thinking of people who have come to love their chains. Are you a slave, or are you free? Start acting like it, then. Embody the virtue of competing without competing.