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Bend to remain whole;
warp to remain true.
The empty becomes filled;
everything old becomes new again.
The small will gain;
the great will become confused.

Therefore, the Consultant holds to integrity,
and lets the world follow him.

He does not promote himself, therefore he stands out.
He does not show off, therefore he looks good.
He does not brag, therefore he finds success.
He is not proud, therefore he can endure.

Well, it is only because he does not compete,
that nobody can compete with him.

The old saying, of the oak and the reed, comes close:
bend to the storm, remain unbroken, and return.


Due in part to this chapter, I’ve tried to be conscientious in avoiding spammy (and otherwise-obnoxious) self-promotion. So far, though, I have found no success…

chapter notes:

Again, I have substituted Western sayings where they have the same sense as the Eastern ones. In particular, everybody seems to have an old saying about the oak and the reed, so I have converted the unspecific Chinese to the specific species.

These translations all connote some form of energy (although this is not the only source for “effort”). This is the conventional Western translation of the Eastern concept, and although it becomes a bit wearing on repeated exposure, I admit I cannot come up with a better option.

What makes it particularly irksome to me is that I was a physics major in college. Trying to answer lay physics questions is a lot harder when people consistently conflate the Eastern philosophical concept with the scientific one…

True Virtue follows only the Way.
What is the Way? It is the Featureless, the Empty.

Amidst the Empty, the Featureless,
ten thousand features sleep.
Amidst the Featureless, the Empty,
ten thousand entities await.
Amidst shadows and obscurity,
lurks the seed of true potential.

From the modern back to the ancient days,
that which we name Design has been since the beginning.
How do I know this?
by its very nature, it is so.


This chapter is the first place where “de” (translated as “virtue”) appears.

chapter notes:

Here, I have translated “qi” to “potential”, and essentially deleted two phrases about how genuine and trustworthy it is. In translation, the added emphasis only served to weaken the entire chapter; I have settled for simply describing it as “true potential”.

Again, there is no original correspondence for “Design”, which I have introduced given relevance and opportunity.

I should quit the business, and end my troubles.

What difference whether I say yes or no?
What difference whether my code is good or bad?
Others fear comparison with my efforts;
thus I cannot avoid fear of their efforts.
Such bullshit! Will it never end?

Others are happy with the project
as at a free buffet or an open bar.
I alone am unmoved, affectless
as an infant too new to smile.
How boring! Is there no escape?

Others have job security;
I live from contract to contract.
I feel like an idiot! I’m so screwed!

Others seem so bright and certain;
only I am uncertain.
Others walk the cutting edge;
only I seem to be getting obsolete.
How featureless, like an ocean!
How empty, like the endless wind!

Others learn Ruby or PHP;
only I remain unspecialized, like an undergraduate.
I alone am different from all others —
sitting here complaining like a Whiny Ass Titty Baby!


This is another one of my favorites.

chapter notes:

Compared to all other chapters in the Dao De Jing, this chapter is remarkable in its personal and subjective attitude, as well as its unique whininess. I suspect that Consultants from any age are subject to the same kind of lamentations.

Abandon theories of management and development methodologies,
and the developers will benefit a hundredfold.
Abandon fixed hours and codes of conduct,
and enthusiasm for the project will take hold.
Abandon efforts to screw over your people,
and they will not desire to screw the company.

These three are examples of an underlying principle:
look to the basics, and keep it simple;
limit your greed, and beware diminishing returns!


chapter notes:

The principle being espoused in the original is readily recognizable as the KISS principle.

When the Great Way is abandoned,
there will be fixed hours and codes of conduct.
When development methodologies and theories of management abound,
there will be a great deal of lip service.
When the official organization chart is in confusion,
the unofficial organization holds the projects together.
When the company and its projects are in confusion,
they call for the Consultant.


I actually have nothing against methodology, in principle…

chapter notes:

In this chapter, the deprecated “knowledge” has been replaced by “development methodologies and theories of management” — basically, excessive cleverness, again.

With the best managers, the developers hardly know they are managers.
Next best, are managers who are admired and loved.
Below that, are managers who are feared.
The worst are ridiculed and despised.

When you do not trust your people,
your people will not trust you.
Be vigilant — choose your words carefully.

The project is completed
and the developers say:
“We did it ourselves!”


In some ways, you could view the Dao De Jing as the Dilbert of ancient China…

chapter notes:

Transmuting “rulers” into managers, and “the people” into developers is almost all that was needed to mistranslate this chapter.

Attain emptiness; maintain equilibrium.

Ten thousand functions are called; I only watch them return.
Objects proliferate; each returns its resources to the root.
Returning resources is necessary to maintain equilibrium;
maintaining equilibrium is mandatory
for the essential functions of the system to run continuously.

Implementing essential functions requires insight;
failure of essential functions will cause an error.
Errors in the essential functions of the system will cause disaster!

If the essential functions can run continuously, they can be integrated;
once integrated, the system is functional.
A functional system can be delivered;
delivery is the Way.

Follow the Way, and your works will live on
long after you are hit by a bus.


chapter notes:

I have mercilessly abused this long, chaining chapter to make it applicable to software development, with a combination of low punnery and gratuitous analogy.

Some people read the Dao De Jing as a pointer towards physical immortality. Besides incorporating a common saying from its new context, the final verse is an explicit repudiation of this.

(or: How to Read Knuth)

The ancient masters are deep and obscure, subtle and comprehensive.
Well, if they are deep beyond comprehension, I can still describe them:
Careful as if crossing thin ice.
Alert as if surrounded by rivals.
Courteous as a guest.
Yielding as melting ice.
Simple as an uncarved block.
Opaque as muddy water.

When the water is stilled, it gradually becomes clear;
when the sleeper is moved, he gradually awakens.

Who holds to the Way does not seek completion:
it is only because he is incomplete
that he can grow.


chapter notes:

One of the most useful skills I learned in school was how to read math books (and, by extension, any dense technical literature):

  • First, skim it: the chapter, the section, whatever unit of the text is most convenient. Pay some attention to structure and essential definitions, but don’t worry if you don’t understand everything the first time through — skip over the tough bits.
  • Take a break, then go through it again in more depth. Again, you won’t get everything, but you will now be primed to understand the content, in ways you weren’t the first time around.
  • Take a break. Let the material settle in your head. Meditate and/or sleep on it.
  • Read through it again, in detail. This time, you can skim the bits you understand thoroughly, and focus on anything else that isn’t perfectly clear.

You may need to repeat the last two steps a few times, but eventually you will be enlightened.

Of course, this assumes you understand the prerequisites, and leaves out looking up other sources, discussions with teachers and peers, working out problems assigned or otherwise, and so on. But the primary points are these:

  • It is an iterative process. Dense, unfamiliar abstract material is difficult to learn, and the most effective route is to familiarize yourself with it in stages.
  • The meditation bit is important, and it really works. It helps to have a mixture of detachment from and engagement with the material, without frustration, anger, or forced focus. Although this kind of mental attitude is difficult to describe, it does seem very much a Daoist sort of attitude.
  • However, note that the meditation is not the *only* thing. I have suggested alternating between active reading and meditative consideration (although in fact you should do whatever gets the job done, and ignore any suggestions to the contrary…).

At any rate, to me this chapter seems the very image of this process, and the attributes of the ancient masters seem like a description of the virtues of a well-written paper — with simplicity at its core, care in its composition, and opacity only as a consequence of the fundamental concepts to be grasped.

That which you look for, but cannot see: the Formless.
That which you listen for, but cannot hear: the Silent.
That which you grasp for, but cannot hold: the Intangible.

These three, the incalculable, are one and inseparable:
its surface does not shine; its depths are not shadowed;
deeply unfathomable, nameless, returning back to nothing.

This is the Form without form, the image of Nothing.
This is the Featureless, the Empty.
Those who pursue it will never see its back;
Those who address it will never see its face.

But those who hold to the ancient Way
grasp the thread of the modern world;
and those who grasp the ancient beginnings
hold the thread of the Way.


This is probably my favorite chapter of the entire Dao De Jing.

One of my goals for this project was to translate the philosophy as faithfully as is reasonably possible, though the original poetry might suffer… so, you can look on these occasional un-redirected bits as providing connective tissue to a philosophy that might be as relevant to modern consultants as it was to ancient ones.

chapter notes:

I was fairly straightforward with this chapter. I have taken some liberties with the final verse, though.

November 2009

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