A Different Kind of Tao
What if would-be CEOs replaced The Art of War with The Tao of Pooh?
Schmoozy business guys have been toting around Sun Tzu’s The Art of War since the high-shouldered 80s. The 5th-century BCE strategy treatise has been repackaged into innumerable Chicken-Soup-for-the-Blank formats, as well as at least one Wesley Snipes movie, but it is typically positioned as an East-meets-West playbook that gives corporate leaders bite-sized chunks of ancient military wisdom to help them win the modern war of business.
I came of age in the 80s and started my white-collar career in the 90s, so this archetype of a douchey business guy tossing quotes like “All warfare is based on deception” has always been with me. As for why it’s so popular in that set, there are plenty of guesses (my favorite is “It’s short.”). The reason that rings most true for me is that it combines a sense of Eastern sagacity with a specific brand of macho corporatism ascendant in late 20th century America. You can be a selfish ass but still feel justified and even deeply wise because you can spit out a few opaque aphorisms. It’s the corporatist fortune cookie.
The Art of War is an applied take on Taoism but it’s not the only one to come West. When I took my first steps into business, it wasn’t the Eastern philosophy book that called out to me—instead I found The Tao of Pooh. Which, honestly, couldn’t be more in character.
If you haven’t read it, The Tao of Pooh is a primer on Taoism as told masterfully by Benjamin Hoff through the filter of Winnie the Pooh. If that sounds to you like it would be childish, I would counter that it’s child-like, and that difference is one of the central, brilliant themes of the book. Seeing Pooh as the Uncarved Block. Inviting you into the simple beauty of The Way through the interactions of cherished childhood characters. It all works so well. I remember reading it as a meditation and feeling such a sense of peace and understanding, every time. It showed me how I could engage with the people and the world around me in a way that was calm, empathetic and, again, understanding.
Of course, you can get there by studying the actual teachings of Taoism, but nothing I’d read on it before this had reached me like The Tao of Pooh. My brain is simple which, according to this book, is a-ok. Preferable, in fact!
Both The Art of War and, eight centuries later, the Tao of Pooh draw on Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching written some time in the 6th century BCE. Both take the how-to-live-life guidance of Taoism and spin it in their own directions, one that aims this deeper understanding toward conquering the enemy (in war or business) and one that aims it toward kindness and acceptance.
What kind of capitalism would we have if our business leaders had swapped one vision of the Tao for the other? If the Way was a path to selflessness, not selfishness? If we replaced “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting” with “The wise know their limitations; the foolish do not”? Or “Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt” with this longer, beautifully Pooh-based musing on success from Hoff:
“The honey doesn’t taste so good once it is being eaten; the goal doesn’t mean so much once it is reached; the reward is not so rewarding once it has been given. If we add up all the rewards in our lives, we won’t have very much. But if we add up the spaces *between* the rewards, we’ll come up with quite a bit. And if we add up the rewards *and* the spaces, then we’ll have everything — every minute of the time that we spent.”
The Tao of Pooh vision doesn’t preclude self-interest. Rather I think in a business setting it simply tempers self-interest with empathy and humility. Instead of framing business success as a zero-sum game, a slash-and-burn battle where winning and losing are defined in absolutes, it allows balance in the process and deconstructs the identities of allies and enemies back into humanity.
So, if the person next to you on the plane was always pulling out a dog-eared copy of The Tao of Pooh instead of The Art of War, if the desks of corporate strivers had plaques devoted to quotes of kindness and calm rather than conquering, would we have more conscious capitalism than we do today? Would our multinationals be more integrated into our societies rather than lording feudal-style above them? Most importantly, would Harry Ellis have walked out of Nakatomi Plaza alive?
Of course, this is some heavy-duty reversed causality. These business leaders attach themselves to War precisely because of a militaristic perspective, not the other way around. And, rightly or wrongly, this conquering mentality has created and continues to create vast wealth because of its drive and ruthlessness. But, as someone who chose Pooh over War, I like to think that capitalism and the world would be better off if we all saw ourselves as The Uncarved Block instead of the Victorious Warrior.