The Virtue Of Playing Like Children

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.

-Lao Tzu-
(Tao Te Ching, chapter 68, translation by Stephen Mitchell)

A couple chapters ago, Lao Tzu was speaking of the Master. And he said of her, “She competes with no one and no one can compete with her.” That was our introduction to what Lao Tzu, in today’s chapter, calls the virtue of non-competition.

Before we extol this virtue, I’d like to remind my readers that Lao Tzu likes to use plays on words that are unfamiliar to our western minds. Like when he says not-doing. He doesn’t mean doing nothing, he means not-doing doing. Also known as, effortless action. And when he says not-knowing. He doesn’t mean that we know nothing, he means not-knowing knowing. This is knowing that we don’t know. The humble position to take to receive all knowledge. Not-competing is, likewise, not-competing competing. Which Lao Tzu says is playing at it, like children.

Lao Tzu likes to invoke images of children at play; because he sees in their innocence, in their youthful exuberance, in their unencumbered imaginations, a primal harmony with the Tao; that is what he wants us adults to practice, each and every day.

Always, he points at children, saying, “Look over there. They do naturally; what you, as an adult, have long ago forgotten.” That is the heart of what Lao Tzu is saying to us today.

For we all love to compete. From the youngest of us to the oldest. We love to compete; and truth be told, we want to win. We just need to follow the example of children. When we compete, we need to do it in the spirit of play. That places us smack dab in the middle of harmony with the Tao.

Consider for a moment, the best athlete in the world. They want their opponent at their very best. To best an opponent that wasn’t at their best wouldn’t provide any where near the satisfaction of having them at their best.

In the same way, the best general gets into the mind of his enemy. You want to know 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, before they make their move. We will talk more in tomorrow’s chapter about the military strategy of generals, so I won’t go into more detail, today.

Because I am a market anarchist, I believe very strongly in the virtue of free-market competition, unencumbered by State regulation or subsidies. So, the example of the best businessman is of particular interest to me. A businessman will never be at their best as long as the State is favoring a few at the expense of others. It is good for the community that businessmen are competing to be their very best. So, what can we expect from a businessman at their best? Lao Tzu tells us that we should expect them to serve the good of the community. They understand that what is good for the whole community is good for them. They, too, engage in competition with the express purpose of winning. But don’t think for a minute, that the best in business would ever sacrifice the good of the community in order to achieve their win. Any businessman that does that, isn’t competing in harmony with the Tao. And, out of harmony with the Tao, they aren’t at their best.

Finally, Lao Tzu, comes back to leaders. He has been spending a great deal of time here in the preceding chapters. He has told us in many different ways how to be a great leader. But this, I think, is the first time that he has said how to be the very best. Still, it is very familiar to those of us that have been paying attention. If you want to be the very best leader, then follow the will of the people. Leading by following. Placing yourself below. Content to serve as an example. Not desiring to use force; or otherwise, manipulate and control.

Yeah, I like this being in harmony with the Tao. It is playing, like we are children, again.

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