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In filling a cup, it is best to stop short of the rim.
An oversharpened edge will quickly blunt.
A house full of treasure cannot be secured.
Let wealth and power go to your head, and you will reap disaster.

Complete the project and move on: this is the Way of Heaven.


chapter notes:

The only intentional mistranslation in this chapter is converting “work” (gong) to “project”, which is arguably a perfectly fine translation.

I’m cutting back my posting frequency for a bit.

The highest mastery is like water:
water benefits all,
yet always seeks the low points, despised by the masses;
thus it is like the Way.

In real estate, location is everything.
In understanding, depth is everything.
In negotiation, diplomacy is everything.
In speaking, credibility is everything.
In management, order is everything.
In consulting, effectiveness is everything.
In taking action, timing is everything.

If there is no contention, there will be no blame.


chapter notes:

The title (“Principles of Least Action”) is a reference to a classical principle in physics, in which minimizing “action” (suitably defined) mathematically determines the natural motion of objects in the world. This resonance with the philosophy of the Dao De Jing is remarkable (though I should note that it is also metaphorical, not mathematical).

The second verse is the first major collection of proverbs in the original (whether novel to the original, or “established sayings”). Here, as elsewhere, I have at least given the nod to any modern sayings that appear especially appropriate.

In the original text, this is not a “wu-” form, but it is frequently used in parallel to “wuwei”; I have chosen to render it with an English phrase analogous to “action without force”.

This treatment may have distorted its meaning somewhat more than that of “wuwei”. “Teaching without words” is at least more plausibly literal than “no-action”; my best guess is at a primary intent was teaching by indirection (as in “by avoiding the one, he chooses the other”), and possibly teaching things that can’t be readily explained. Note that, as the original text is poetry, it is more likely than not to have more than one intended meaning.

At any rate, the meaning I have chosen to emphasize is that of communicating without ego. Whether or not this was a connotation of the original text, this meaning does seem to fit readily into many of the places where the phrase occurs. Also, it is a genuine problem that is hard to solve if you don’t have the knack, and one where a Daoist attitude seems likely to be effective.

The Market may crash, but it never dies.
The reason why the Market persists
is that it does not live for its own sake;
that is why it cannot die.

Therefore, the Consultant
does not set out to innovate, yet finds himself on the cutting edge;
does not found his own company, yet finds his consultancy thriving.
Does he have no interests of his own?
Perhaps this is why his interests thrive.


In this chapter, as in chapter 5, “the Market” stands in for “Heaven and Earth” — idiomatically, the entire world. Since, storms and earthquakes aside, the market tends to be a bit less stable than the heavens or the earth, the first line emphasizes that as a phenomenon, its existence is more or less independent of good times or bad.

chapter notes:

Along with chapters 5 and 6, this chapter introduces “the Market”. Ancient China was not big on markets: in the Confucian view, the merchant is given the lowest possible status, and unlike many other Confucian principles, the Dao De Jing takes no exception to this.

However, the Market is pervasive in the environment of the Consultant. It inspires both vilification and idolatry, both of which cause a great deal of foolish behavior on the part of people who really ought to know better.

My position here is to treat the Market with a mixture of caution (as for any sharp and effective tool), skepticism (as a perennial avenue for abuse), and engagement (as an inescapable aspect of the modern world).

As an over-literal interpretation of the original term tends to lead to a common misunderstanding of the original philosophy, I have chosen a more concretely specific phrase for the mistranslation. I am still not entirely happy with it, but I have not found anything I like better.

The philosophical error to avoid is to interpret this phrase as a recommendation to withdraw from the world, sit there like a lump, and do nothing, unconditionally; I think it is safe to say that this is not what Daoism is all about.

Viewing the Dao De Jing as a whole, one striking aspect is the amount of advice it gives for those engaged with the the world: hermits have little need for political philosophy, military advice, or social recommendations. While reserving action is certainly appropriate in many situations (and it seems clear that identifying such cases is an aspect of the particular Daoist virtue represented by this term, “wuwei”), it is not appropriate for all situations, and any philosophy that claims it is would be both foolish and boring.

Rather than translating the term over-literally, I have chosen a phrase that suggests working with the nature of that which you are engaged with, as opposed to bringing brute force to bear on a potentially uncooperative reality.

The spirit of the Valley never dies —
it is called the Creative Spirit.
The gateway of the Creative Spirit
is the foundation of the Market.

Abstract and delicate, it hardly seems plausible,
yet in practice, its productivity is inexhaustible.


An important theme in the original Dao De Jing is the repeated image of the dark/mysterious feminine. I’m afraid I’ve given it short shrift throughout most of TWotC — this is one of the cases where I feel kind of sad about abusing the material 😦

[note: by request, I am now putting the comments and chapter notes above the fold, unless they happen to be extremely long…]

chapter notes:

The chapter title identifies “the Valley” as Silicon Valley.

This is also the first case where “the feminine” appears in the original, and is converted to “the creative”.

I have added a new entry to the static site: an “about” page, which explains a bit about how I went about mistranslating the Dao De Jing. However, it still doesn’t entirely explain why. So, here goes:

Years ago, when I first read the Dao De Jing, I picked a version more or less at random off the shelf. Since it is quite short, I finished the book proper quickly, and thought something like, “Huh, that’s interesting; I think I see what they’re getting at.”

It was clear from the beginning that the translator was being pretty liberal with his translation — the likes of the line in chapter 32, about the Dao being “smaller than an electron”, were a dead giveaway — and irritating though that might have been, on the whole I was OK with it.

Later, though, I was thumbing through the notes in back, and reviewing the chapters they referenced, and discovered that this liberality went far beyond simple translation. It was not just a matter of paraphrasing, nor even just dropping bits that didn’t agree with him — the translator (one Stephen Mitchell) had simply dropped entire chapters, and written something he liked better! I learned to fear the term he used in his notes to indicate this kind of behavior: “I have improvised here…”.

Frankly, I was pissed off. You just can’t *do* something like that, not without warning people ahead of time. Change the title, stamp “pastiche” on the cover, do something to keep unsuspecting folks like me from assuming they’ve got the genuine article.

Over the next several years, I collected a few other translations, which seemed to be much more literal, and eventually I did a close reading, of all the versions in parallel: each chapter in turn, from beginning to end. My goal was to try and gain an understanding of the gist of the original, as much as is possible for one not schooled in ancient Chinese, anyway. In the end, I was reasonably happy with what understanding I had achieved.

However happy I might have been, though, I was also still pissed off. So, I set about an exercise that had occurred to me during this reading… and, although the project took on a momentum of its own after that, I have to credit Mitchell with being the biggest single inspiration for The Way of the Consultant.

The Market is ruthless:
ten thousand programs struggle for market share.
The Consultant is ruthless:
his loyalty to his clients is purely mercenary.

The Market, with its ups and downs,
acts much like a bellows.
Although it generates nothing, it is inexhaustible —
the more it moves, the more it blows.

Researching, analyzing, day trading —
this is not as good as holding to the center.

Read the rest of this entry »

This is one of the more obvious ways to retarget the text towards a software developers’ perspective. I have not been entirely consistent in this translation — there are a few variations, the most common of which is to leave the translation as “things.

Idiomatically, the proverbial ten thousand things means “everything in the world” — more things than can reasonably be counted, much less individually handled, managed, or followed.

Read the rest of this entry »

October 2009

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