A journey of a thousand miles – and other wisdom of the Dao

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

This is the perhaps most enduring line of the Tao Te Ching – a work written by Lao Tzu which itself is still read and studied today, over 2,500 years since its composition. This line sits halfway through the 64th verse of an 81 verse collection, the foundation of all Daoist philosophy.

My introduction to the Tao Te Ching came from Dr Wayne Dyer, through his book completely seriously entitled Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life – bear with me on this one. As is tradition, Dr Dyer presents his own version of the Tao Te Ching, in his case by studying a wide corpus of translations and compiling selected verses. Untraditionally, each verse is followed by an essay on the preceding teachings. Purportedly, the author spent several days meditating on each lesson of the Dao, attempting to live the Way of the Eternal Dao. This process included walks along the beach, incense, and (among other things) gazing upon a portrait of Lao Tzu, in an attempt to Change His Thoughts, and Change His Life. If you’re willing to put aside judgement and be comfortable with some life-changing suggestions one reviewer described as “a bit pollyanna”, it’s a worthwhile read.

One translation of the 64th verse of the Tao Te Ching, as presented by Dr Dyer, reads as follows.

What is at rest is easily managed. What is not yet manifest is easy to prevent. The brittle is easily shattered. The small is easily scattered. Act before things exist. Manage them before there is disorder. Remember, a tree that fills a man’s embrace grows from a seedling. A tower nine storeys high starts with one brick. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Act, and destroy it. Grasp it, and lose it. A sage does not act, and so is not defeated. He does not grasp, and therefore does not lose. People usually fail when they are on the verge of success, so give as much care at the end as at the beginning. Then there will be no failure. The sage does not treasure what is difficult to obtain. He does not collect precious things. He learns not to hold onto ideas. He helps the Ten Thousand Things find their own nature, but does not venture to lead them by the nose.

Even by the standards of the Tao Te Ching, this is a particularly insightful and instructive verse. In part, this is due to how immediately accessible much of the verse is, if not its entirety. There are lessons we can carry with us from these words. What follows is only one interpretation of the many-faceted Dao.

 

A tree that fills a man’s embrace grows from a seedling.

A tower nine storeys high starts with one brick.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Having recently ventured to the Grampians National Park and climbed atop many peaks and mountains, I was humbled by the scale of it all. There were many mountaintops and rolling valleys, many trees and forests, and a great many boulders designed almost perfectly for climbing upon and meditating. Yet there was a time where there was nothing. Before the trees, there were but seedlings, and before the mountains were sweeping plains. Over thousands of years the land has been formed and reformed, with changes never perceptible yet never ceasing. If mountains could grow from flat earth and forests from a single seedling, is there any limit to the heights to which we could rise? What does this say about the lives we could build?

In his most enduring line, Lao Tzu tells us of both what can be achieved and the means by which we can achieve it. In each of our lives are towers we wish to build. I’ve written about a few of mine before – a consistent meditation practice, an Olympic dream, this very blog. For others it is a fulfilling career, mastery of a language, a family. Viewed in their completion, these towers seem far to great to ever scale, let alone build. Yet all around us we see the manifestation of things which seemed impossible. Literal towers define a city’s skyline, each tower built brick by brick. In national parks reside thousands of trees which form the canopy above, yet each of these began life smaller than the blades of grass underfoot. Every journey of a thousand miles began from no journey at all. In this 64th verse of the Tao Te Ching, we come to realise the heights of what we achieve.

There is a way in which we can build our towers and complete our journeys. Slowly, one brick at a time, step by single step. All we need do is what is small. By taking small steps, we not only achieve our goals, but we achieve them without noticing resistance. Just like the tree which grows from a seedling, we are always growing. Yet just like the tree, our growth is not always perceptible. What is one step along a journey of thousands? Other than the first, nothing is special about the step itself, nor is any day more defining for a tree than any other. We must still take each step, and still grow each day, until one day, we look back on the many miles we have travelled, and look down upon the great heights which we have grown.

 

Act before things exist.

Reading this line, I am reminded of The Art of Learning, an autobiographical account of former child chess prodigy and tàijíquán world champion Josh Waitzkin. In learning tàijíquán, Josh studied texts on this Chinese martial art to more fully understand both its martial and spiritual facets. In one section of his book, he recalls the following precept: “When the opponent moves, I move first”. As is a hallmark of Chinese philosophies, this precept appears at first paradoxical. At the very least, to suggest that one moves before their opponent, after the opponent has already moved, suggests a poor understanding of causality and continuity. Yet the deeper meaning of this precept suggests a reversal of how martial artists conventionally approach their combat. Instead of acting reactively, after their opponent moves, one can act proactively. This action is not mere prophylaxis – that is, taking proactive action to prevent the opponent from moving first. We are instead guided to control the entire flow of an engagement. What Josh came to learn from these words was to control the fight entirely, by making the opponent move in the way he wanted, to understand the opponent, to know what the opponent would do next – because he was the one controlling each movement. When the opponent moves, one who understands this precept would know exactly when and where. When the opponents moves, I move first.

While it is difficult to imagine Lao Tzu as a fighting man, there are parallels we can draw between his 64th verse and the precept taught in texts on tàijíquán. For one to act before a thing exists, we must know the thing. We must understand how things come into this world, what has come before them, and what will come afterwards. Lao Tzu’s image of a journey of a thousand steps reminds us that all things begin small, and that the only way things ever progress is by infinitesimal steps. In advising us to act before things exist, he reminds us that before things are even small, they are in a state of non-existence. By acting before things are manifest, they are easy to prevent.

This is wisdom we can apply to our own actions in our own lives. On a simple level, we see the benefit of preventative action. The effort in rebuilding a damaged relationship far exceeds the effort in maintaining a healthy relationship, through frequent and open communication. Our relationships are made easier by addressing and discussing issues before they arise. At work, we have many opportunities to see into the future and foresee problems which may occur. By sweeping aside the problem – such as a bug to deal with when you finally get the time (spoiler: you won’t), or a point of confusion with a client who you hope will figure it out themselves (spoiler: they won’t) – we only forestall and exacerbate an eventual disaster.

The aphorism an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure rings true (even accounting for the conversion from imperial). Lao Tzu presents us with something more than mere aphorism. For us to act before something exists, we must know the thing. An ounce of prevention may be worth a pound of cure, yet we must know what it is we are preventing. We must exercise our foresight and be aware of all things which have come before, and hence all things which are to come, if we are to live well, in accordance with the Dao.

 

Lao Tzu offers us many things, even now, thousands of years after his time. Start small, build upon each brick and each step, be aware of what has come before and what is to come. Act while things are manageable, before they become too difficult to sway from their own inexorable journey of a thousand miles. While an oil painting of a Chinese philosopher may not take pride of place on your desk at work, the wisdom of the Dao is easily transportable.

3 Life Lessons from a WebDev Conference

Growing up, I wanted to make robots. I drew pictures of blocky, 90’s looking robots, full of rectangles and youthful dreams. I saved every last cardboard box for my creations, even signed up the local hairdresser to my monthly machine magazine. As it turned out, magazine writing was far too ambitious a goal for even the pluckiest 10 year old, and the obsession with robots didn’t last into high school.

special brewjust for youIn adolescence, I turned my gaze towards game design and development. Later, after a few weeks of science camp in high school, I decided to become a particle physicist.

After all these best-laid plans, I somehow landed the role of web developer – at least, that’s what it says on my card.

A few weeks ago, I attended 3 web development conferences. Beneath the lectures, the workshops, and the esoteric technical details, I learnt 3 major life lessons.

Creating is more rewarding than passively experiencing.

The most rewarding experiences for me during the week of conferences were not of listening to lectures and enjoying the show. Instead, it was the time spent behind-the-scenes, volunteering and keeping the event running. To whatever limited extent I could, I was helping to create this event.

“Rewarding” is not the same as “pleasurable”. In measure of worldly pleasures, listening to a clever talk ranks higher than making sure the drinks fridge is stocked. Replacing bin liners isn’t quite on the same level as relaxing in a beanbag on the auditorium floor. Yet we are often led astray in seeking pleasurable activities. The gratification provided by these activities is almost always fleeting, and requires continually chasing after more to maintain the same level of satisfaction. Consider eating a delicious meal. The sensory pleasure is surely immense throughout each course. Yet, once the last bite of dessert is complete, what remains? To quote the great Daoist thinker Laozi, “pleasures and delicacy can only attract passers-by to stay temporarily”. The pleasure received from such an experience cannot be carried with you, and we are left with another hole to fill.

Rewarding activities, on the other hand, provide benefit beyond the tangible and sensory. This benefit becomes part of ourselves, and remains after the activity has passed. The time spent practising an instrument may, for some, be a pleasurable experience. Yet the reason most musicians undertake hours of practise is to better themselves and their art. Performing great works is a pleasurable act, and it is the long hours and difficult road to reach that point which allows for that reward. There are thousands, millions of stories already written – yet a writer does not content themselves with simply reading, but instead writes. The reward is not in the practise itself, nor the act of writing, but in how it changes the actor.

Being part of a team which created an event, attended internationally by hundreds, was truly rewarding. For my own part, being up on stage as MC had a powerful effect on me – though some could argue this was more a matter of feeding my ego and desire for the stage than is was any altruistic and wholesome endeavour. Were I to have spent a week simply absorbing the talks and enjoying the spectacle, the event would have less relevance to me now than it does otherwise.

As with everything there is a balance to be struck. Most of us cannot give up fine dining, entertainment, music, or any other of these worldly pleasures. What we can do, however, it to spend some time, any time, creating rewarding experiences for ourselves, to create works of art, to create powerful movements, and to create better versions of ourselves.

Find role models, and talk with them.

I’ve always been a very singular person – not yearning for or requiring much from others. While I’ve known some great people, for most my life there’s not been one who I could point to and say, “yes, they’re my role model, I want to learn from this person and reach their heights” (the exception, of course, being my boy Justin Vernon, light of my life).

However, to try progressing anywhere in life without the help of others is to handicap yourself. “Soft skills” such as communication and the ability to ask questions are more relevant than ever to succeed in the workplace and to succeed in life. For conferences, a large part of the benefit lies in the people you talk with. As a veteran conference-attender, internationally distinguished academic and colleague of mine has said, “conferences are 20% listening to talks, 80% talking with people over drinks”. Networking is not my strongest suit, though it’s something I make efforts to improve upon. A networking endeavour from the conference led me to late-night dumplings and drinks with a team from Sydney – and though I’ve no plans to relocate anytime soon, having such contacts is always beneficial.

On the first day of the conference, there was a speaker who I was particularly impressed by. They were obviously knowledgable and successful, and spoke on the intersections of language, culture, and team-building, all of which are of interest to me. For one of the first times in my life, I was compelled to meet this person who I had only known from afar. Mustering some courage (and a friend who already knew the speaker), I struck up a conversation at a post-conference event. My inexperience was apparent, however, as I had no insightful questions to ask, nor a real objective in mind. What I gained from the conversation was not a deeper understanding of the speaker’s interests. What I gained was an understanding of my own lack of understanding, and a readiness to learn.

You cannot expect someone to give you all the answers – especially when you give them none of the questions. What makes someone a role model to you? Just asking yourself this question and understanding your answer is a useful place to start. If you’re looking for direction in your own life or work, try to learn about and learn from the journeys of others. Be aware of what it is you’re trying to learn, what parts of life you’re trying to understand, and what facets of your role model you aspire to emulate. Once you know this, finding the right words for the right questions becomes easier.

I’ve still yet to find a role model or mentor. However, there’s no shortage of places to begin looking. An easy place for anyone to start is in the books they’ve read, or the art they enjoy. If someone has written a book which captivated you for hours and taught you many things, reach out to them. If someone has painted a work of art which has left an impression, reach out to the artist. For me, next time I talk with a role model, I’ll know what to say.

What you do for work doesn’t have to be your life – and that’s okay.

Up on stage at the conferences were career web developers and programmers, leaders in their fields. People working at Microsoft, Facebook, Google. Some talks were about cutting-edge technologies, others were about problems overcome in the line of work, others still on the blending of art, language, culture with the technical field.  With enough work, anyone could learn what they’ve learnt and do what they do. What cannot be copied, however, is their unmitigated passion for their field.

I’ll use the specific example of programming and web development, though it’s a concept that can be applied across many disciplines. There are two “accepted” pathways of making it into the industry. First is the traditional tertiary-based pathway. This means completing a degree in computer science, taking on a few internships, and coming out with a recognised qualification. My particle physics degree doesn’t quite make the cut as recognised currency.

The second “right” way to break into the industry is to spend all your time coding, become part of the community and community projects, and make your name known.

In either case, the motivation is the same – a strong passion for programming and a commitment to the field. This passion is evidenced by the years spent on formal education, or the hours of free time spent on personal programming projects and community work. People who make it into the field live and breathe it. Programming is not just a career, it’s a calling, it extends beyond the boundaries of the working day. Every person I spoke to had their own personal projects in programming. The end of the working day merely means more time for more programming, now as a hobby and creative endeavour free from limitations.

As someone who more-or-less stumbled into this field, I feel like somewhat of an outsider looking in. The talks and workshops presented during the week did not inspire me to head home and launch into a new project. What I did realise, however, was that my job does not define my life, my interests and my hobbies. Only a fortunate (or unfortunate) few of us will ever spend a career in a single field. Fewer still in a single job. The constant within our lives is not where we go to work or even what it is we do, but the person that we bring each day along with us. If we are dedicated to becoming the best versions of ourselves, then it is this which matters more than what we do for work.


Several weeks have passed since the closing talks of the conference. In a few weeks more, I may remember the titles of some talks, a few insights here and there. Yet in months time, what will remain will be these 3 life lessons, which I learnt at a webdev conference.