Improve Your Resolve With Ancient Chinese Wisdom

Have you made headway on your New Year’s resolutions, or have they faded from view already?
Improve Your Resolve With Ancient Chinese Wisdom
Confucius, 1770. (The Granger Collection, New York via Wikimedia Commons)

Have you made headway on your New Year’s resolutions, or have they faded from view already?

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, said the Daoist master Lao Zi, but in today’s distraction-filled world, just setting that journey in motion, let alone seeing it through to the end, can be a task of Herculean proportions.

Presented below are several simple lessons from ancient China that will help you reach your aspirations this year.

1. Learn From Your Peers

“When I walk along with two others, they may serve me as my teachers. I will select their good qualities and follow them, their bad qualities and avoid them.”

This line, spoken by Confucius, comes from “Analects,” a famous collection of conversations between the teacher and his disciples. Confucius was first and foremost a great learner. Though born to a poor family, at 15 he had devoted himself to the pursuit of knowledge.

Try observing the successes and failings of others, and applying the lessons they learned (or should have learned) to your own endeavors.

2. Think About Your Legacy

How can you honor those who came before you? By contributing something worthwhile to those who will come after.

Confucius said, “Establishing oneself, practicing The Way, spreading the fame of one’s name to posterity, so that one’s parents become renowned—that is the accomplishment of filial piety.”

Though Confucius’s disciple Zeng Shen compiled an 18-part treatise on filial piety, from which the above quote originates, the principle of establishing oneself is a theme throughout the whole work.

The teachings of the sages were successful without being severe, and their governance was effective without being rigorous.

Imagine how you would like you children and grandchildren to remember you. What would make their world better and how can you make it happen? Thinking about the big picture will help direct your activities to accomplish what you feel is worth doing, and save you from distractions.

3. Be Patient (But Persistent)

Despite what overachieving tiger moms might suggest, self-improvement requires a process of gradual understanding, and focus.

In the “Classic of Filial Piety,” Confucius states, “The teachings of the sages were successful without being severe, and their governance was effective without being rigorous.”

In the “Rules for Students,” a Confucian rhyming text commonly memorized by children, it is said, “The saintly and the virtuous can be attained through gradual tempering.”

No virtue or skill can be learned only from a textbook, but requires experience and persistence. So don’t be hard on yourself if you can’t change a habit or pick up a new skill right away. Just keep plugging away.

4. Take Meaningful Action

In “Analects,” Confucius said, “Living in retirement to study their aims, and practicing righteousness to carry out their principles—I have heard these words, but I have not seen such men.”

It is easy to abstractly proclaim one’s support for a cause or cast judgment on the ways of others. It’s another matter to actually step up and walk the walk.

Think about a specific change you would like to see made in your community, and give yourself tasks toward that end. Remember: actionable goals are specific, achievable, and have a deadline.

5. Build in Consequences

One of China’s well-known idioms literally means “to tie one’s hair to the rafters and to prick one’s thighs.” It refers to the stories of students who were determined to overcome the temptation of sleep. One tied his topknot to the ceiling to keep his head from drooping to his desk; the other would poke himself in the thigh with a chisel if he found himself dozing off.

While you might not want to employ such drastic measures, the idea is a smart one. Build in some consequences for not accomplishing your tasks. Mean to limit your spending on coffee, for instance? Pay with cash out of a designated envelope. If you exceed your budget, no more coffee for the rest of the month. Intend to exercise three times a week? Promise your friend that you'll pay him $10 each time you miss a workout date.