Toon-Te-Ching: Verse 1

We are introducing a new WorkBytes feature for 2019 - the Toon-Te-Ching.  The original Tao-Te-Ching, 81 verses written by Lao-tzu in the 6th century BC, is still relevant today.  We will be basing our Monday blog toons on a verse each week, and connecting the ancient text to our work life today.  We hope to bring you inspiration and entertainment, plus something to chew on for the coming week.

The first verse is about desire.  Please note: there are many different translations out there, we picked one, trusting that the message is the same even if the translation differs.

1st Verse

The Tao that can be told

Is not the eternal Tao.

The name that can be named

Is not the eternal name.

The Tao is both named and nameless.

As nameless it is the origin of all things;

As named it is the Mother of 10,000 things.

Ever desireless, one can see the mystery;

Ever desiring, one sees only the manifestations.

And the mystery itself is the doorway to all understanding.


Don’t confuse representations of the world, for the world itself.  
This verse makes clear that our language and our customs are convenient shorthand to represent our world, but it is not the actual world.  For my programmer friends, think of words as a ‘pointer’ to life. When you see your name written on a piece of paper, it’s not actually you, but it ‘points’ to you.  Your name might even have some built-in assumptions for those who don’t know you. Assumptions on ethnicity, nationality, gender, age and a host of other things often come with our names.

Let’s shrink this big idea to a really small work example.  The ever-popular planning documents, in whatever format this means to you, whether it’s Agile stories and roadmaps or a more traditional project plan.  The plan is not the work, or as Mary Poppins would say “the cover is not the book, so open it up and take a look.”  How often do we treat the plan as if it is the work? And we treat planning as if it is an accomplishment, though nothing has actually been ‘made’, no outcome has been reached.  

This thinking leads to the false belief in Transactive Management; thinking that everything can be broken down into tasks, for a successful outcome.  Similarly, tasks are simply representations of the work, not the work itself.

Desire narrows your field of vision.  The final stanza of the verse indicates that desire leads to over-valuing manifestations, and this, in turn, blocks deeper knowing.  We see this in the business world when the desire to raise a stock price causes companies to exhibit questionable behavior. The value is placed on the manifestation (stock price), in spite of the larger impact on the world.  

Shrink this idea down to your everyday.  Suppose you are working on a project that promises to increase your company’s profits by 10% (desire).  What are the manifestations of that desire? A promotion? An increase in stock price? What mystery is being blocked by this desire?  Are there collateral impacts on the world? Will your project harm the environment? Will people lose their jobs? Will customers spend money on something they don’t really need? Something that will end up in a landfill?  

Did you read something else from this verse?  Share with us in the comments!