10 surprising lessons from Confucianism for a fulfilling life

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“Do not do unto others what you would not want others to do unto you.” 

Many of us know about the Golden Rule early enough in life. It’s one of those basic lessons we learn on how to treat other people – fairly and kindly. Essentially the same way we’d like to be treated. 

This time-tested piece of wisdom is just one example of the gifts mankind has received from the ancient Chinese philosopher and teacher Confucius. 

As a virtuous man, he had so much to teach in the way of moral excellence and social matters. 

In fact, a whole school of thought emerged as a result of his teachings and is known today as Confucianism. 

If you want to live a fulfilling life, here are ten surprising lessons from Confucianism that will help you get there: 

1) “To be wealthy and honored in an unjust society is a disgrace.”

First up, let’s talk about what Confucian wisdom tells us about material success and social recognition. 

Specifically, that no matter how successful or recognized you are, if you’ve become so with injustices around you, it’s not truly honorable. 

That’s certainly an uncomfortable thought to have in this modern world, where many of us will do anything to be successful. 

And, as much as it hurts to admit, in a world where one’s privilege and advantages play a role in success. 

Compare, for instance, two businesspeople. One is a self-made entrepreneur with a small business that doesn’t exactly bring in the big bucks every month. But they do make sure to practice fair labor practices. 

In contrast, the other one inherited an empire – a conglomerate of subsidiary businesses. And they further strengthened it by exploiting their workers and paying barely livable wages. 

Who do you think is more honorable? And therefore, in the eyes of Confucius, the more successful one? I think it’s quite clear, isn’t it?

As I mentioned in the intro, Confucianism deals with principles regarding social impact. 

Which means that through a Confucian lens, the true marker of a life well-lived is how you’ve used your power to effect change for the better. 

How you practice integrity and moral strength, especially in the face of privilege. 

2) “The man who chases two rabbits, catches neither.”

Ah, here’s a lesson that multitaskers and jacks-of-all-trades would do well to heed. 

Recent research has uncovered that focusing on one thing is more productive than focusing on many. 

But thousands of years ago, Confucius already knew this. He was already preaching on the pitfalls of spreading ourselves too thin and trying to grab every single opportunity that comes our way.  

In short, run after both rabbits, and you won’t catch either. 

It’s a powerful reminder for us to focus and prioritize. The less divided our attention is, the more likely we can achieve our goals. 

I’ve seen this to be true in my own life as well. I find that I get more done when I aim to get only one thing done at a time. Doesn’t that sound so counterintuitive? 

But it’s true. Because when I’m focused, I produce quality work. Even my personal life has become better for it. My loved ones feel that I’m truly present. 

3) “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.”

Another Confucian teaching that can help us live more fulfilling lives is that of knowing that we don’t know everything. 

Why? Because recognizing our own limitations is the first step toward personal growth and self-improvement

After all, you can’t learn anything new if you’ve got a fixed mindset. If you think you’re superior and already know everything.

Which brings me to my next point…

4) “The superior man is modest in his speech, but exceeds in his actions.”

According to Confucianism, what makes a person truly superior? 

Not empty rhetoric, that’s for sure. 

Look, talk is cheap. I’d be wary of anyone tooting their own horn. I’d wait till I see them truly putting their money where their mouth is. 

In my experience, the most credible people are the ones who let their work and their actions speak for themselves. 

There’s huge power in understatement and restraint in your words…then surprising everyone with how good you truly are. 

5) “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”

And how exactly do you get good at anything? 

By doing. That’s the gist of this quote from Confucius. 

See, it’s one thing to absorb information, and another to truly internalize it through action. 

In fact, this principle is so sound that it’s also what you’ll find at the core of many educational philosophies. 

I was an early childhood teacher for many years, and I found that kids truly learn best through hands-on activities. 

Like pouring water into glasses. Getting their hands dirty to plant seeds. Following simple cooking recipes. 

Not by sitting passively in classrooms while the teacher drones on and on. 

This holds true no matter how old we get. It makes for a truly fulfilling life when you’re actively engaged in learning. 

6) “To be wronged is nothing, unless you continue to remember it.”

Now, let’s talk about conflict. What does Confucius say about it? 

Well, mainly that even when someone has done us dirty, we’re still in charge. We’re in control – and we can choose to carry that grudge or let it go. 

It might come as an unpleasant surprise – unsympathetic even – to be told that “To be wronged is nothing.”  

How can it be nothing when you feel so hurt and offended, right? 

But if you consider the whole thought behind it, you’ll see that it makes sense. 

Yes, it hurts to be wronged. But at the same time, choosing to dwell on it doesn’t make the pain go away. It merely refreshes the wound and stops it from healing. 

And more importantly, stops us from living our best life.

This doesn’t mean you have to forget or minimize the wrongs done to you. Whatever you feel is valid. 

But do yourself a favor and focus on what can be changed instead of being weighed down by past grievances. Your life will feel lighter and more fulfilling. 

7) “Never contract friendship with a man that is not better than thyself.”

This piece of wisdom might sound strange because on the surface it sounds a little elitist. 

Like we can’t be friends with people who are “beneath us”, by whatever measure society deems. 

That’s not what it’s about at all. 

It’s about surrounding ourselves with people who are better than us in terms of character. You know why? 

Because those are the people who will challenge and uplift us. Who will infuse our life with positivity and ultimately push us to be the best version of ourselves. 

I’ve seen firsthand the power of this teaching in bringing us fulfillment. I used to run with a bad crowd, and for a while, it really got in the way of my growth. 

Once I started weeding out the toxic ones and looking for better friends, I started feeling lighter. More motivated. More inspired to do something real with my life. 

8) “When we see men of a contrary character, we should turn inwards and examine ourselves.”

I know that I’ve mentioned being selective about the people you surround yourselves with. But that doesn’t mean we should be judgmental and dismissive. 

What Confucius recommends is, whenever we see people behaving a certain way or having different beliefs as us, we should do some self-reflection. 

Let’s say you’ve met someone from the opposite end of the political spectrum. A common reaction would be to recoil in disgust and assume they’re stupid/ignorant/evil…

And I wouldn’t blame you. I’ve been in that spot myself, so I know how it’s easy it is to judge others for their beliefs and choices. 

But the wiser thing to do – the more emotionally intelligent thing – is to consider why you reacted that way. 

What biases do you hold that stop you from truly getting to know this person? What prejudices make you jump to generalized conclusions about their character? 

Hopefully, you see this as a way to develop tolerance and self-awareness.

9) “A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace.”

Do you remember to stop and consider the beauty in the mundane? 

If you do, then you’re a wise person, according to Confucianism. 

As surprising as it sounds, this seemingly small thing has so much impact on our happiness. 

It’s the science of awe, which is packed with so many benefits: 

  • Quiets our inner critic
  • Reduces stress and loneliness
  • Brings a greater sense of expansiveness and connection

That last part for me is the most important – we see that we’re part of something bigger. 

That’s why one of my favorite things to do on earth is to go to the beach, and at night, float on my back in the water and watch the stars. I always come away feeling both in awe and comforted, as if I’d just witnessed something truly profound. 

The stars are there for you every night…don’t forget to look at them! 

I hear you saying, “Really, that’s it?” And I say, yes, it is that simple, as is the rest of life… 

10) “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.”

That’s right. We’re the ones who are complicated. 

That’s why Confucius challenges us to step back and consider the essence of what makes a meaningful life

Is it our busy schedule? Our job title? The number in our bank account? 

I think not. A meaningful life will look differently for each one of us, but here’s the thing – 

Once you pinpoint what matters to you, you’ll see that all those other complications are nothing but noise. 

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