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    The Tao and Tony Robbins

    Sometimes I think that we really don’t know even the basics about how to live a good life. Consider two major philosophies: Eastern philosophy as described by Taoism and Western self-help know-how as exemplified by Tony Robbins (or Oprah if you prefer.) These two strategies for life are about as far apart as can be.

    In a nutshell, Taoism is the philosophy of “go with the flow.” If you’re a Taoist and you’re struggling, then you’re doing it wrong. Other ways to express The Way of the Taoist are “Let go and let god” and “Don’t push the river. It goes by itself.” The faith proposition here is that by letting go and allowing reality to show you which way it wants you to go, you achieve success by merging with it (though not the kind of success you might expect or plan).

    Tony and many the rest of the Western self-help gurus have the exact opposite advice: success requires struggle. “Take life by the horns” and “success comes from taking action and following up” are good examples of this line of thought. The hypothesis here is that the individual’s will is more powerful than the circumstances.

    In my life, I’ve got to say I’ve had more success doing it the Taoist way. Some of my biggest successes, most notably my marriage, have “just happened.” I didn’t have to force them or drive myself to succeed. It just all worked. On the flip side, I’ve got a list of goals that I drove hard to achieve only to be thwarted in the end. I put years of intense struggle into my AI Ph.D. only to get stomped flat by a dishonest committee and a thesis advisor that did not have my best interest in mind. I lifted heavy weights with a very good (and very expensive) personal trainer for two years with virtually no visible benefit.

    So is Taoism right and Tony wrong? Or are they both wrong? Or is it possible they could both be right? Here’s my best cut at a synthesis. When things are going right, you feel like a Taoist, but other people see you as a hard-driven self-helper. When life is broken, you feel like you’re struggling like a self-helper, but you get no results and it appears to others as if you’re just slacking. What makes the difference between these two scenarios? Two things: the first one is enjoyment. If you like what you’re doing, if you really like the process of doing it and not just the outcome or the external rewards, then it doesn’t feel so much like work. Second is talent. It’s just a fact of life that some people do some things better than others, all other variables held equal. Being able to do more with less effort makes anything more enjoyable, which takes us back to my first point: enjoyment.

    So now I judge my success by how much I enjoy what I do every day and whether what I’m doing seems to be coming naturally or if I’m “pushing string uphill.” Maybe it’s not a perfect metric, but it seems to be working for me right now.

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