Mar 5, 10 | | 7,581 views | 1 Comment

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taoism Once upon a time in ancient China, there was an old man who faced a difficult choice. He had a successful business and wished to choose one of his three sons to be his successor. The problem was that all three sons were equally intelligent and diligent. He called them together in order to discuss the matter.

The old man said: “My sons, the time has come for me to retire. My final decision as the head of the family business is to choose one of you to take over. This will be a difficult choice because you are all worthy of the honor.”

One of the sons asked: “Father, is it necessary for you to choose? Why not have all three of us run the business together?”

“That thought had occurred to me,” the old man nodded, “but if the business is to remain successful, it must be led by one person who truly understands the Tao. That’s the way I built it and managed it all these years.”

The sons realized why their father had them study the Tao ever since they were little – he was preparing them for this moment!

“I need you to help me choose,” the old man continued. “Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and no one is perfect. So, I want each of you to take a blank sheet of paper. On the top half of the page, I want you to write about your strengths. On the bottom half, write about the weaknesses you see in your brothers. Sign it once you are done, have your other brothers sign as well, and then turn it in to me.”

The three sons all thought this would be an easy task and started working on it at once. Moments later, the youngest son turned in his work. “Excellent! That was quick.” The old man said: “Let us wait for your brothers to finish, and then we will look them over together.”

They waited and waited, but the two older brothers seemed to be taking a long time in the next room, having some sort of discussion. Their voices grew louder until it seemed like they were arguing. At that point, the old dispatched the youngest son to fetch them.

The two older sons looked flustered as they came into the room. The old man asked, “What is taking so long?”

“Nothing, Father.” They assured him: “We have some differences in opinion and need to work through them, that’s all.”

“Let us take a look at what you have so far,” the old man took their sheets and examined them. Both had written a lot. After a while, the old man remarked: “One thing I am noticing is that many characteristics appear in both lists, but what appears as a strength in one list shows up as a weakness in the other.”

“That is the problem, Father.” The oldest son said with annoyance in his voice: “I have an eye for details, but he says here that I am ‘unnecessarily nit-picky’ and calls it a weakness.”

“That is nothing compared to the mistake he made here,” the second son angrily pointed. “My greatest strength is that I am as tolerant as the Buddha, but he says here that I have low standards for myself and others. He calls it a weakness. Obvious, he is mistaken.”

“No, I am not mistaken,” the oldest son countered. “The real mistake is this one over here. Everyone knows I often give constructive advice, but you say I am ‘endlessly critical of people’ and call it a weakness. That is not true at all.”

“Not true?” The second son raised his voice: “Then explain how you take my strength in never rushing into anything and twist it into ‘he is often late and rarely punctual.’ If that’s not being critical, what is?” Both brothers were now quite upset.

“One moment,” the old man stopped them before things really got out of hand. “We have not looked at the sheet your little brother submitted yet. Why don’t we do that, and then come back to your disagreements?”

The two brothers reluctantly backed down as their father unfolded the youngest son’s submission. He looked at the top half: “You have a section titled ‘My Strengths’, but the only thing you wrote is ‘not applicable.’ What do you mean by that?”

The youngest son said: “Father, there simply aren’t that many things I can do that someone else cannot do better. If I am to be honest with myself, I really cannot claim to have any special strengths.”

The old man scanned down the page and asked: “You also have a section titled ‘The Weaknesses of My Brothers’, but you wrote is ‘none.’ Why?”

“Father, you said so yourself that they are worthy men. I see unique strengths in each of them and no glaring weaknesses worth mentioning.”

The old man nodded: “Very good. You have demonstrated a true understanding of the Tao. You shall be the one to inherit the business.”

The oldest son looked shocked: “Father, I accept your decision as always, but I am puzzled. How did he demonstrate a greater understanding than either of us?”

The second son was no less surpised: “Father, am I not the one who always goes with the flow? Why is he chosen instead of me?”

The old man explained: “This test may seem simple, but there are complexities within it just like the family business and life itself. In facing this challenge, your little brother uses the Tao of simplicity. Less can be more, and being quiet can say more than any amount of words. Knowing when to stop, with words as well as actions, is often the best way to handle complexity.

“His decision to not boast about his strengths demonstrates the Tao of humility. It is real wisdom when you realize that no man can do everything himself. It is also the wisdom of recognition – knowing who the capable employees are and when to delegate tasks to the best advantage of the company. This is crucial in any business leader.

“His decision to not write about your weaknesses is perhaps the most critical of all. It shows he understands the Tao of harmony. Nothing succeeds in business like harmonious relationships, not just with customers but also among coworkers. It is the secret of my success, and I want it to be yours as well.

“Lastly, harmony above all is what I want for the three of you. You know I do not have many years left. Certainly I won’t be around to mediate your arguments forever. If there is no harmony in the family, then no amount of business success will be worthwhile. When you look at it as I have, I think you will see that my decision could not have gone any other way.”


One major point from this story is that the Tao can be misused. The two older brothers felt they were followers of the Tao. One of them focused on details and correctness, while the other took to being tolerant and easy going. If called upon to explain, both could probably cite many passages from the Tao Te Ching to support their views. Despite all that, they both failed their father’s test.

What this tells us is that mastery of the Tao goes far beyond learning the words in books. The real skill of the sages has to do with knowing which principles to apply for which situation at just the right time. Those who know only the words but have no guidance from experienced mentors may not understand how to do this. They may even end up using Tao teachings as little more than excuses.

It is easy to tell when this is happening. Look for justifications that sound plausible and yet deliver poor real-life results. For instance, the detail-orientation of the oldest son resulted in hurtful criticisms against others, and the slower pace of the second son resulted in him wasting other people’s time. The problem was not with their principles – we certainly should tend to details and not be too hasty – the problem was with their application of the principles.

Failures occur in life when one misapplies the Tao. The story shows this through the argument of the two older brothers. Like them, when you veer off the path, you don’t end up with the simple, graceful and happy life that the sages talk about. Like the contentious brothers, you feel tension, frustration, perhaps even anger, and you cannot seem to get anything done.

If this sounds familiar, then it may be time to change your approach. Just as the youngest brother completed his assigned task with speed and ease, you can sail through life effortlessly. His approach could be best be understood in light of chapter 32:

One should know when to stop
Knowing when to stop, thus avoiding danger

Criticisms can be appropriate and important, especially in a business setting when someone isn’t doing his job. The problem is that, when it comes to criticizing, most of us do not know when to stop. We’ll keep cutting loose after the point has been made. Sometimes, we cannot stop even when we know doing so will only create ill will and no positive change whatsoever. This tends to make life much more complicated than it has to be.

Chapter 32 is also crucial for the true understanding of humility in the Tao context. The youngest son did not flaunt his strengths or achievements, but he also did not downplay his position. His approach was one the quiet dignity, without arrogance or shame. This is because the Tao of humility is not about degrading oneself or having no confidence. Rather it is about clear understanding of one’s role in relation to others:

The existence of the Tao in the world
Is like streams in the valley into rivers and the ocean

He saw himself as the ocean, central to the many rivers who were his employees. The ocean’s greatness resulted from all the rivers flowing into it. This could only happen if the ocean occupied the lowest point. Great business leaders like his father were like that. They were down-to-earth and felt no need to prove themselves as the best and brightest at everything. They assumed a low profile appropriately, in order to create a space for those below them to shine.

Harmony is the natural result of this approach. Chapter 32 describes it this way:

If the sovereign can hold on to it
All will follow by themselves
Heaven and Earth, together in harmony
Will rain sweet dew

Holding on to the Tao may not be easy. It can be difficult to not complain about something when you think the problem is obvious. It can also be difficult to avoid showing off when you know you have certain talents. Applying the teachings requires skill, and that is why so few people can truly claim to have mastered the Tao. Fortunately, it can become easier with practice, and stories like this one give us tips on how we can hold on to the right path.

The rewards are well worth the effort. It is literally true that everything just seems to fall into place, and people come into alignment with you in a spirit of harmony of their own accord. When this happens to a business, it cannot help but succeed as employees, customers and suppliers all follow by themselves. Profits will then accumulate like the rain of sweet dew.

This was the father’s secret to build and manage a successful business. Now, we can also use the same secret to build and manage a successful life. After all, what is life, if not the business of living?

By: Derek Lin
Source: (Tao Living)


Comments (1)


  1. Tao Te Ching says:

    Greetings homo sapiens! Because you happen to be interested in history, I wanted to discuss with you the fact that experts found that Chinese classic text Dao De Jing (by Lao-tsu) along with I Ching (Book of Changes) are commentaries to Shan Hai Ching (The Collection of Mountains and Seas). Every individual is a biorobot with an individual program (sofware). All human programs are recorded inside an old Chinese manuscript known as Shan Hai Jing. Initially, all of the programs were documented on the monument dating back to the twentieth century BC.

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