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  • Daniel Kephart

Stop Being Clever

I absolutely love John Wu's translation of the Tao Teh Ching. It's a tiny little book; but it absolutely punches above its weight.

The Chapter of the Day logo is all about insight.

I think, in part, that part of what makes the book so remarkable is how unlike a western philosophical treatise it really feels. An ancient eastern religious text, the Tao Teh Ching is a collection of poems, each of which offers commentary on how to follow/maintain/adhere to/discover the Tao--the Way.


Here's a snippet from one of my favorites:


He who knows men is clever.

He who knows himself has insight.


Now, while it's not apparent here, there's a running theme in the Tao Teh Ching: Don't be clever, don't be busy, don't be successful.


These things are wrong for Lao Tzu, the quasi-historical figure who apparently wrote these poems, because they involve us in matters we have no business being invested in. Cleverness, in particular, is problematic because it focuses all our attention on the outside world, rather than our internal state of being.


We've all been there: It's Friday night, you're at the bar with some friends, and you hit them up with a zinger of a joke about a rooster, a rickshaw, and a bag of pickles.


And, on a good night, everyone laughs! And a surge of positive emotion floods your brain, because you are clever.


But Lao Tzu isn't interested in being clever, because being clever tells us very little about our internal goings-on. Others may be laughing--and we might feel pretty good about ourselves--but positive emotion isn't a reliable way of determining what path is best to follow. Just because going your own way feels good doesn't mean it is the Way.


Cocaine, after all, feels excellent; but it isn't a sustainable Way of living.


By contrast, the person who knows herself has insight. She isn't interested, exactly, in whether or not people laugh at her jokes. Instead, she's probably more interested in discovering why she wants to tell a joke at all. Is it to impress a potential mate? Is it to fit in with the dominant culture? Is it to cover up a social insecurity?


To say that knowing why we act is "important" isn't what the Tao Teh Ching seems to be suggesting, though. Instead, it calls our attention just as much to very impulse of acting at all. That's where "busyness" comes into play. As postmodern people, we value action. It's no surprise that many of the most successful Instagram accounts revolve around athletics, video games, sex symbols, cars, or wealth creation.


We are a people of action.


But what of non-action?


Unlike inaction, non-action isn't simply a state of rooted conservatism. Lao Tzu isn't much interested in telling people to be like rocks or fortresses or fence posts. Instead, the Tao is something more akin to water--always flowing effortlessly to where gravity directs it. At the same time, of course, anyone who has witnessed the Grand Canyon can attest that water is quite a force to be reckoned with. Even if a billionaire like Jeff Bezos wanted to replicate the Grand Canyon in another space, he probably couldn't. Not, at least, without quite an impressive investment of effort and resources.


A clever force can manipulate small things; but it can't change their very nature.

But an insightful force doesn't need to.


Water is, in a sense, insightful because it knows what direction it is meant to proceed--and yet it doesn't strive to move on its own, it simply allows outside forces to do their work.


That's highly poetic, but there's some truth to it.


The issue with being clever is that one can get very far down the path before realizing that it's entirely the wrong way to go. Insight, by contrast, knows the right destination and moves towards it without expending any of its own effort.


Is all of this right? Maybe not; but ideas this old don't stick around accidentally.


Don't be clever.