Cantina Quote o' The Week: Hsun-tzu

If there is no dull and determined effort, there will be no brilliant achievement.

        -Hsun-tzu (Xun Zi)

This one seems particularly appropriate for that madness that is NaNo, doesn’t it just?

Hsun-tzu (or Xun Zi, if you prefer that newfangled modern stuff) lived during the Warring States Period, and managed to do some deep and methodical thinking in chaotic times. You’ve more likely heard of Mencius than him, which is unfortunate, because some of his thinking is quite useful. Like his ideas on Heaven: he determined heaven’s not supernatural but natural, and one’s attention is best paid to people rather than to otherworldly stuff. Hard-headed and practical. Never mind the occasional dragon.

Here’s the passage the above quote came from:

Pile up earth to make a mountain and wind and rain will rise up from it. Pile up water to make a deep pool and dragons will appear. Pile up good deeds to create virtue and godlike understanding will come of itself; there the mind of the sage will find completion. But unless you pile up little steps, you can never journey a thousand li; unless you pile up tiny streams, you can never make a river or a sea. The finest thoroughbred cannot travel ten paces in one leap, but the sorriest nag can go a ten days’ journey. Achievement consists of never giving up. If you start carving and then give up, you cannot even cut through a piece of rotten wood; but if you persist without stopping, you can carve and inlay metal or stone. Earthworms have no sharp claws or teeth, no strong muscles or bones, and yet above ground they feast on the mud, and below they drink at the yellow springs. This is because they keep their minds on one thing. Crabs have six legs and two pincers, but unless they can find an empty hole dug by a snake or a water serpent, they have no place to lodge. This is because they allow their minds to go off in all directions. Thus if there is no dark and dogged will, there will be no shining accomplishment; if there is no dull and determined effort, there will be no brilliant achievement. He who tries to travel two roads at once will arrive nowhere; he who serves two masters will please neither. The wingless dragon has no limbs and yet it can soar; the flying squirrel has many talents but finds itself hard pressed.

As I said, dragons. But the point still stands. He seems to have been a very practical, pragmatic fellow, and the above is good to remember when you’re in the middle of a long, hard slog and wondering if it’s worth keeping on.

Here’s another passage I quite like:

If you do not climb a high mountain, you will not comprehend the highness of the heavens; if you do not look down into a deep valley, you will not know the depth of the earth; and if you do not hear the words handed down from the ancient kings, you will not understand the greatness of learning. Children born among the Han or Yüeh people of the south and among the Mo barbarians of the north cry with the same voice at birth, but as they grow older they follow different customs. Education causes them to differ.

There you are. A whiff of geology, a celebration of learning, and insight into the truth of humanity, all in one short go.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must be on with the dull-and-determined in hopes the brilliant will follow.

Cantina Quote o' The Week: Hsun-tzu
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3 thoughts on “Cantina Quote o' The Week: Hsun-tzu

  1. 1

    True BUT …
    If there is ONLY dull and determined effort, there will be no brilliant achievement.

    Exploration, playfulness are needed to break the mind out of current thinking, to find new models, to leap to insight. Maybe that’s cataclysmic events in the geologic metaphor.

    Seems like a lot of those Eastern philosophers are really into the dull and determined approach. I probably go too much the other way … too bad the dull and determined isn’t more fun.

  2. 3

    I don’t know if Thomas Edison read this guy, but he said “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” To put it another way, as a former aspiring musician, I can testify that if you hear a musician play a beautiful note on the stage, that note was preceded by years of very ugly noise. And my neighbors during my teen years would agree.

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