Let’s play a word-association game. I say a word, you immediately think of a word that’s related to it. Skip the usual ones (Internet, car, supermodel). Try Winnie the Pooh – did you think of philosophy?
If you think of A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner as staple classics of children’s literature, cherished for their timeless, loveable characters and their memorable misadventures, you’d be forgiven. After I put down The Tao of Pooh, I was convinced that A.A. Milne had created a brilliant allegorical tale steeped in the Eastern philosophical tradition.
The Uncarved Block
“No matter how he may seem to others, especially to those fooled by appearances, Pooh, the Uncarved Block, is able to accomplish what he does because he is simpleminded. As any old Taoist walking out of the woods can tell you, simpleminded does not necessarily mean stupid…When you discard arrogance, complexity, and a few other things that get in the way, sooner or later you will discover that simple childlike and mysterious secret known to those of the Uncarved Block…”
The Tao of Pooh, page 12 & 20
According to the Pooh philosophy, winners don’t need to be the smartest, the quickest, the most discerning or the most analytical. They don’t have to be loud, engaging or constantly coming up with new ideas. Sometimes winners are the ones who happened to be well-tuned in to their surroundings. As is often demonstrated, winners aren’t those that set the trends that others follow, but rather those who can see where the current trends are going, follow them, and jockey onto them in such a way that others think they started it. That’s how Apple brought in the iPod for the mp3-hungry masses and Facebook certified the age of social media. None of these companies were big, fast or strong in their respective fields when they brought in these inventions, but they followed the trends, fielded products that were a response to the demands of the market, and managed to corner it.
Almost all of us know a Lucky Joe of our own. Lucky Joes are basically Average Joes with a timely, almost enviable, luck-of-the-devil that allows them to be in the right place at the right time, with the right tools at their disposal and with the right attitude. They don’t seem to put in much effort and yet, they always seem to be more successful at what they do than you are, regardless of how hard you try.
Lucky, you’d curse bitterly under your breath. Wrong, the Taoists would mutter.
Maybe Lucky Joes don’t depend on luck as much as they rely on simplicity. Maybe if you look twice you’ll see that they’re not straddled with ego, expectation or envy. Maybe these businesses and individuals can see what’s happening before you do simply because they haven’t built walls of expectation around themselves. Simply put, being a winner once doesn’t guarantee ongoing success. Don’t rest on your laurels, brag about your past performance or field expectations on account of services rendered. Follow the Lucky Joes and don’t expect. Just do what you’re good at, what you love, and you’ll get better – then great – at it. Soon you’ll build excitement and buzz, people will take notice, follow you, rave about you and trip over themselves to be part of your tribe.
“…once we see what the situation is and what we can do about it, we need to utilize everything we find along the way in order to accomplish whatever is required. More often than not, the things we need are there already; all we have to do is make use of them.”
The Tao of Pooh, page 124
Simple as it sounds, many individuals and businesses fail to understand and/or implement this idea. It embodies an ad-hoc approach to problem-solving that both solves a problem and reveals new opportunities to combat future problems. You don’t need to follow the playbook every time – sometimes all it takes is a little (or more) unorthodox thinking. That’s why certain Army commanders, mechanics, surgeons, engineers and CEOs become such coveted employees of the businesses they join – they’ve figured out how to patch up engines, limbs, battle plans and balance sheets in the face of gunfire, grit, chaos and angry shareholders, making spur-of-the-moment decisions while treading the razor’s edge.
At times, “solutions” don’t just solve a problem, they can also create new opportunities for business. Ask Richard Drew, who in 1925 solved the problem of painting motor cars in two-tone paint shades, by inventing Scotch tape and masking tape to demarcate the boundary between two colours on a car body. Or even Art Fry, who created sticky bookmarks for his hymn books in the late 1970s by taking short strips of paper and coating part of one side with temporary adhesive – Post-it notes anyone?
Applying lessons learned from the school of experience and solving problems using available resources is the key to making decisions on the margin. Success is a state of mind that can be achieved once you learn to fit your circumstances – because only those best-suited to their environments survive.
“‘A tree as big around as you can reach starts with a small seed; a thousand-mile journey starts with one step.’ Wisdom, Happiness, and Courage are not waiting somewhere out beyond sight at the end of a straight line; they’re part of a continuous cycle that begins right here. They’re not only the ending, but the beginning as well.”
The Tao of Pooh, page 137
Making small, deliberate improvements to problems and situations eventually leads to the greatest of problems being overcome. A concept also embodied in chaos theory, social work and business, it’s proven time and time again that if everyone makes small contributions to a challenging problem, it can often be solved with the minimum of efforts. The key is to get everyone excited about making small contributions, and then channeling and directing that energy towards something worth changing.
And how exactly to marry excitement with productive effort?
Start with small, deliberate steps. Enjoy blogging, dancing or collecting toadstools? Start now, but don’t tell people who aren’t interested in knowing about it. Keep your head down and do it for yourself; expect no reward, have no expectation (there’s that word again). The thousand-mile journey to happiness in your field of expertise can only be possible once you start today, and once you’ve carved out a solid niche, a loyal audience interested in that particular niche will notice you and latch on.
It’s only every day that we’re being reminded that it’s the small changes that ripple together and coalesce into large waves that can sweep away many of the world’s problems. They can be large-scale events such as the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, smaller social revolutions such as microfinancing initiatives and social entrepreneurship in Africa, or even Facebook; these changes wouldn’t be possible if people weren’t willing to make a small effort, every day, to participate in something that is now larger than life.
Welcome to Tao, the way of Pooh.