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What is Wu-Wei?

Trying Not to Try

Okay I admit Wu-Wei XP (无为经验值) is a bit of an obscure name, what is it actually about? I assume that a first glance of this website has made it clear that the main focus is on helping managers and entrepreneurs to stop being busy doing nothing through executive coaching and staff training. But what does this really mean and what does it have to do with wu-wei?

Well, simply put, some years ago I was trying to find an original focal point for my newly established staff-training company. I don’t really recall what triggered it, but somehow I got attracted to ancient Chinese philosophy and ended up taking a course about the Great Thinkers of the Eastern Tradition, read an existential rendition of the Confucian Annalects, The Collected Works of Mencius, The Essential Zhuangzi and a philosophical translation of the Daodejing. It’s this last book that really caught my attention, specifically from a management and leadership perspective.

Wu-wei is an ancient Chinese concept described in the Daodejing which is a fundamental text for both philosophical and religious Daoism and has inspired philosophers, painters, poets, even cooks and gardeners since it was written more than 2,500 years ago. It was written by the largely mythical figure of Laozi who is normally represented as one man, but scholars today believe his book is the work of a number of authors, collectively referred to as the Old Masters: the Laozi.

Literally translated, wu-wei means “doing nothing”, but as a concept it better translates as “doing without trying”. To visualize this, you might compare it to “being in the zone” or achieving a “state of flow”. 

Being in the Zone or Achieving a State of Flow

Let’s look at four examples of wu-wei to better understand the concept. I’ve  taken two from Laozi’s Daodejing and two others  from the philosophies of Chinese sages Confucius and Zhuangzi, who both lived a  couple of centuries BCE.

First Confucius, arguably the most famous Chinese thinker. Confucianism is all about morality and the correct practise of rituals and so not surprisingly, he compares wu-wei to the “carving and polishing the Self.” What he means by this is that if you try something new and then practice it continuously, over time you will internalize and embody the process. You’ll achieve wu-wei.

The clearest example of this Confucian concept of wu-wei I can think of is learning how to drive a stick-shift car. If you learnt how to do this, I’m sure you’ll remember how difficult this was at first. You checked your mirrors, applied the brake, forcibly pressed down the clutch pedal, shifted gear, let the clutch come up slowly and then… gas, but… not too much. Difficult wasn’t it? But once you mastered the basics the whole experience changed completely. Now, instead of over-thinking, sweating and changing your mind in the middle of an action, you shift gears without a single conscious thought. That is wu-wei.

Then Laozi’s Daodejing. Laozi is far more radical than Confucius, claiming we should never even try to achieve wu-wei. Instead of learning and practising, we should just forget about it and rely on the Dao, the Universe, to make things happen. A good example of this theory is that of travel. On the one hand you could spend weeks planning all the details of your trip: book all the hotels, get insured and even write a day-to-day itinerary… OR… you could just look for a cheap ticket to any visa-free destination, pack a carry-on bag, grab your passport and leave. When you get to your destination, make sure you get lost and see what happens. From personal experience I can tell you that this latter option leads to far more interesting trips. It’s the wu-wei of travel.

Another example brings us back to my days as a sergeant with the Royal Horse Artillery in the Netherlands Army. As a group commander of 12 soldiers, I had a reputation of being a very good listener. That surprised me as I did not see myself like that at all. I thought hard about it. Why would they think I was a good listener?

Then I realized that I really wasn’t a good listener, but I did let people speak. In the army soldiers always hear they should shut up and do as they’re told. I never liked that and so I’d let my soldiers whine and complain until they felt they’d said it all. They had their say and went back to work. In other words, by me doing nothing, nothing was left undone. As a result, I had the best functioning group in the unit. That also is wu-wei.

Finally Zhuangzi, a Daoist sceptic philosopher. He disagrees with both Confucius and Laozi and says you shouldn’t try and you should not, NOT try. Instead, you should just go with the flow and ride the wave. Like Michelangelo, you should not think about how to carve a sculpture but simply look at a block of marble, discover the statue locked inside and set it free.

An example of Zhuangzi’s sense of wu-wei would be writing a book. I’ve always wanted to be a writer and like so many others, I started a bunch of books but never finished any of them. To actually go from “Once upon a time,” to “they lived happily ever after,” seemed an impossible task. Then, in the summer of 2015, I was asked to write some short stories for a website. I took on the challenge and enjoyed the pressure of a weekly deadline. After about a year of doing this, I realized I had enough material for an actual book. So by not trying to write a book and not NOT trying to write one, I had finally written my book.

This really sums up what wu-wei means to me personally and as an executive coach and trainer: To thoroughly practice the things worth learning, to often explore the unknown, to always ride the waves of opportunity and, most important of all, to realize that doing nothing is actually better than being busy doing nothing . That is wu-wei!

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