The Wisdom of Lao Tzu: A Taoist Guide to Getting Things Done

Note: This is a guest post by Michael Miles of

We live in a competitive society and are often told that to get ahead we require drive, commitment and determination, that we must expend a great amount of energy and, if necessary, use force to get what we want. A survival of the fittest mentality is deeply entrenched in our culture.

Much of this thinking comes from Darwin’s Origin of the Species, a work which has influenced us in the most profound and subtle ways, not least of all because it advanced the idea that competition was a natural and normal part of life, that nature was ‘red in tooth and claw.’ Whatever we might think about Darwin, we do tend to see the world in these competitive terms.

But there is another way of thinking. There is another way of getting things done, a way which sees nature differently and recognizes the importance of harmony, balance and living peacefully.

Taoism is a philosophy which seeks to achieve great things by going with the flow. The semi-mythical figure Lao Tzu is said to have written the classic Taoist text, the Tao Te Ching. Here are six short quotations from the text which give us advice on the best way to get things done. Much is lost in translation, of course, but you will have some sense of the original.

In the beginning.

To see things in the seed, that is genius.

If I held in my hand a collection of seeds, I would have little idea what potential lay in each one, but to a botanist, that potential would be clear – she might see an oak tree, a sycamore, an apple tree or a rose bush.

We cannot know the future, but we can, with experience, see that our present actions have consequences that ripple out into time and space and shape our lives well into the future. We can see, for example, that habitual negative thinking leads to pain, failure and frustration, whereas a clear vision of where we want to go usually leads to a better life.

When I look back over my life, I can see a chain of causes and effects – the actions I took had certain results which have changed my life, sometimes forever. So be careful what you think and what you do – everything has a consequence and, like the botanist looking at her seeds, seeing the potential in nascent things is an important skill to acquire.

Taking your time.

Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.

Can you make grass grow by pulling it? Can you bake a cake faster by turning up the temperature in the oven? Can a boy make himself grow any faster? In nature, things happen in their own way and at their own pace. Trying to make things happen faster than they do naturally often leads to disaster – the grass gets pulled out and dies, the cake gets burnt and has to be thrown away.

A river rarely takes a straight course, meandering instead through the natural shape of the landscape, keeping to the lowest points, moving around mountains and hills. But the water keeps flowing powerfully and eventually reaches the sea.

Like nature, our own achievements can take time, and this is no bad thing. I work in education and I have seen for myself the results of fast tracking’ students through the grades and promoting them to university courses at a young age. The adults they become are often socially underdeveloped and less able to function skillfully in the complex real world: they have, in a sense, been ruined by speed. Let’s learn a lesson from nature, and do things well, in their own time.

The path of least resistance.

By letting it go it all gets done. The world is won by those who let it go. But when you try and try, the world is beyond winning.

In the world there is nothing more submissive than water. It seeks the low ground and always yields to resistance. Yet water can, over many years, wear down sharp rocks into small, smooth pebbles and carve wide, deep channels through a landscape. Electricity always takes the path of least resistance,’ finding the earth as easily as possible, yet the power of electricity has transformed our lives.

Like a reed in the wind, if we can bend down low and yield to the pressures of life, letting go and allowing the natural course of events to shape us, we can survive and prosper. But if we refuse to yield and remain firm and upright, the world can break us. We are like a ship on the ocean: rowing against the wind is difficult and pointless. Let go and let the wind do all the work. It may take you to wondrous new shores.

The only thing you can be sure of.

Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them – that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.

Whatever you are experiencing in life, it will disappear and something else will come along to replace it. Only one thing is certain in life – that everything changes. People who know this and tap into it, moving peacefully with the natural course of change can be very successful.

Clinging to the past can be a great source of misery. The future has always been a mystery, an adventure, and always will be. But to resist it is madness – a futile exercise and an enormous waste of energy. Some things are worth fighting for of course but, like King Canut, we cannot stop the tide from coming in. Embrace change, honor and welcome it, make it your friend, and success will come near.

The outcome.

Those who have knowledge, don’t predict. Those who predict, don’t have knowledge.

In the end, life is unpredictable. The wind blows as it will, and life takes us in its own direction. Despite our search for certainty and a clear vision of the future, we cannot know what the future holds for us, what new lands we shall discover when our ship has been blown across the sea. All we can do is lay the groundwork, keep a vigilant eye for danger or opportunity, and relax.

When I look back on my life, one thing is clear – I could never have predicated how things have unfolded over the years; I could never have dreamed I would be in my current situation. Things have worked out well and I could not have orchestrated them any better – nature has taken care of everything. I cannot pretend to know the future, but I am sure that it won’t be what I expect.

The end game.

People in their handlings of affairs often fail when they are about to succeed. If one remains as careful at the end as he was at the beginning, there will be no failure.

In our rush to achieve something, we can sometimes ruin it right at the end. We have laid good foundations, patiently worked for success and we are almost finished when, instead of letting things run through to their natural conclusion, we rush in and spoil everything. Have you ever opened the oven door before a souffle is quite ready? It just sinks and is ruined.

Sometimes we need to act quickly and decisively to avoid disaster – those who held on to their tech stocks after absurdly high prices had been reached at the peak of the dot com bubble soon discovered that waiting too long can be a bad thing. But acting too soon can be just as disastrous. When the prize is just within your grasp, be vigilant and be patient, waiting for jut the right moment to act.

Abundance is our natural state of being. Taoism is not a mystical or religious teaching; it is a practical philosophy for achieving great things in the most natural way and with the least amount of effort. It is a way of making life work – this, truly, is effortless abundance!

Michael Miles runs You can download his new book Thirty Days to change Your Life, for free, by visiting

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Thank you for this post – I’ve been overwhelming myself with everything that needs to get done. I forget at times that it doesn’t need to happen now and that the future is unknowable.

    I’ll take a deep breath and go do what I can in the moment.


  • Esther

    amazing! thank you for this

  • Great post, Michael. I can definitely agree that achievement takes time. I used to be really impatient (and to some degree I still am) with success. I wanted to get through all of my academic degrees in one fell swoop and wound up feeling incredibly burned out. Perhaps it’s the fact that we live in a society where everything is fast-paced…it seems like if you don’t rush to get something done, there will always be someone right behind you waiting to be the first.

  • Michael,
    Great post. I didn’t know you were in education too. You should write an autobiographical post about what circumstances led you where you are. Or maybe you already have one somewhere and I just didnt see it…
    Glowing Face Man

  • “I cannot pretend to know the future, but I am sure that it won’t be what I expect.”

    Indeed! This is a well-written explanation of Taoist philosophy and wisdom.

  • Thank you for this post. Really informative, I found a similar author who preaches the same ideals.

  • Alex – I think we all get caught up in the hurly burly of life. It’s hard to stay detached and to keep our perspective. But we keep trying (but not too hard)!

    Esther – thanks for your kind comment.

    Janelle – we seem to have been conditioned to compete, but there is a different and (I believe) better way of imaging our social world that uses cooperation metaphors.

    GFM – no I don’t think I’ve ever written an autobiography! I prefer not to be the focus of attention! I have found in my life that being quiet and not pushing myself forward has actually led, in some counter-intuitive sense, to success. This is one of the reasons I am so enamored of Taoism – it has worked for me without me even knowing.

  • The deeper I go into my meditations, the more I realize that being truly affluent means allowing oneself to let go and trust the current of life. Your post highlights this immutable truth very well. I’m a musician and I write songs. When I let go and allow the music to play me, something magical happens. I become the music. Flowing with, and trusting that innermost inspiration, I allow the creative muse to overtake me, and beauty becomes manifest. I love Rumi’s quote: “Let the beauty we love, be what we do.”

    Surrendering to life takes courage. We can choose to play our part with effortless ease, flowing with the current, beyond time, speeding happily toward our chosen destinies, or we can buck the tide, demanding that our precious ego-based, ephemeral satisfactions be realized, leading us to suffering and more suffering.

    I wrote a song on our CD “Soul Affirmation – Music for Better Outcomes called: “It Constantly Comes to Me” that describes what it means to be in the flow. The first line goes: “There is abundance in the flow of Creation, and I believe that all will be provided.” Opening up to nature’s flow has been the most exhilarating ride of my life. Learning to really let go is always refreshing and awakening. It keeps me exquisitely in the now, without worry or fear. It allows me to forgive and see clearly that we’re all part of one larger event – togther. It opens up and illumines my mind to All That Is. It Constantly Comes to Me, easy.

    Ken LaDeroute

  • Thanks for this post. I’d add that the wisdom of “seeing everything in its seed” could also be applied to business strategy. Being able to predict the long-term impact of a new product, service or other idea is a critical skill in that area, and also a great way to keep yourself inspired. — Best, Chris

  • Wonderful post.

    I have to come to peace again and again with the undone things. My most powerful way of finding that peace is to love what I’m doing or to be joyous doing whatever I’m doing. The undone things take care of themselves.

    At other times I come to peace with the undone or not-chosen things by rejoicing in the abundance of the universe. The fact that I can’t “get it done” is a dynamic of unbounded creativity. I let my feelings guide me in choosing where to be and what to do.

  • Great Post. I like the part of “The path of least resistance”. I think that, often, we like to push against certain things in life that only further prevents us from moving forward. Sometimes its simpler to go with the flow, while achieving the same or even greater results!

  • ashantai

    A great article. I read it at a time of releasing frustration and i t only served to reduce my tension more. learning to slow down and let go is not only essential but rather easy when we allow nature to wok for us. I am still learning, but it gets a little easier each time I practice. Thank you for the great article.

    “Those that speak, do not know. Those that know, do not speak.” Lao Tzu

  • This is a great affirmation of the principles inherent in taoist thought. It takes a great leap of faith to let it go and let it happen. Fear of what will become of me is the greatest hinderance. I sometimes tell people that I feel like I’ve lost my mojo in that things used to just fall into place all the time, mostly quite unexpectedly. Recently, it’s been a struggle, but probably because I’m “pulling on the grass” to make it grow, not recognizing what’s happening in the present, and attached too much to things and not wanting to lose them, i.e. an apartment, being able to pay my bills. I’ve recently been laid off and intellectually, I’m trying to be zen about it, see it as a gift on a silver platter, but man, it’s hard…

  • Amber


    I’ve followed the Taoist philosophy for years and am always looking to learn from others on the same path. Your interpretations are practical and easily adhere to day-to-day life, and I like the wording of the passages you used. Which translation of the Tao te Ching did you use for this?

    Also, I notice you explain that Taoism is a philosophy rather than a religion. I believe it is actually both — much like Buddhism which actually grew from a mix of Taoism and Confucianism.

    If you know of any good Taoist sites, I am interested. I’ve searched and searched without finding much. Thank you for your post.