Career Wisdom From Confucius

This article about career wisdom from Confucius is the third in our series on career wisdoms from the ancient world following our insights from ancient Greece and the ancient Silk Road.

How do you feel about your co-workers, or your employer, or your employee? Are they a source of enthusiasm and joy, or nuanced irritation, or just a body of entirely emotively neutral individuals? More importantly, have you ever thought about how your answer to these questions affects your perspective on your job or career choice? The attitude that your human environment elicits is irrevocably important. Yet this importance can be overlooked in a career environment placing a greater and greater degree of emphasis on technological interaction and individual self-sufficiency. Modern self-interest is often rewarded in terms of monetary gain or career advancement. But how ultimately fulfilling are such rewards on their own? A look towards Ancient China may help us reflect on the value of the causes and symptoms of Western career-related self-interest.


Confucius and Humaneness

Confucius was a 5th century BC Chinese teacher and philosopher. The focus of the philosophy he developed was personal and governmental morality: the right way to live one’s life involved, in his eyes, compassion and love for others. His ethics revolve around the Golden Rule (“What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others”), familial loyalty and self-discipline. He taught that the practice of altruism was necessary for social cohesion, without which it is very difficult for any person to be happy. Significantly, cultivating or practicing Confucian ethics entails deprecating oneself and showing humility in social contexts. All of these principles and caveats are geared towards Confucius’ ultimately collectivist views on human success: without social harmony, both society and the individual struggle to find purpose and happiness.

These ideas relating to humaneness are combined with stipulations about ceremonial manners and understanding one’s role in society to form Confucius’ view of an ideal society. But Confucius was also careful to provide his principles flexibility, instead highlighting personal exemplification of good behaviour as superior to rigid rule-following. The structure of jobs and careers for Confucius were thus governed by flexible meritocratic considerations in such a nuanced way as to cover all individuals’ roles under an umbrella of mutual respect. Everyone had to know each other’s role and acted accordingly; an understanding of one’s limits and relative talents, rather than a general drive for “upwards” mobility in one’s social standing or career, was the way of life Confucius prescribed.


Confucianism now

Can we apply Confucian’s philosophy to our careers now? I think so, though it will not become manifest in the same way as it did in Ancient China. Within a company, Confucianism could be adopted to inform considerations from meeting styles to break or holiday timings. At any point where interaction between at least two humans is inevitable, Confucianism has something to say about how to treat others. A Confucian attitude would involve treating others according to the role you have, the role they have, and a respectful understanding of the relationship between these roles. Furthermore, this attitude would seek out fruitful human relationships in the workplace and revel in interdependency rather than striving for complete self-sufficiency.

You may not be in charge of making policy decisions, however, so what does all this mean for career choices? Hopefully it gives a perspective on interpersonal relationships which instigates reflection upon what gives you career satisfaction. If Confucianism seems attractive, then maybe a career in which collectivist principles such as those of compassion and humility is what suits you best. Fields of study or work which place you in an environment where these principles persist, say the health or teaching industries, are probably better objects of pursuit than those that do not. If Confucianism seems like nonsense, then it is clear that you place value on other aspects of your role in society. Either way, what you think about when you think of actually applying Confucianism to your career can help you understand what really matters to you.

This article is part of the Career Wisdom Series. Click here to read about career wisdom from the ancient silk road and here to read about career wisdom from the ancient Greek.



Photo courtesy of pixabay
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