An excellent driver leaves no tracks.
An excellent speaker makes no slips.
An excellent accountant uses no tallies.
An excellent gateman needs no bolts to secure a door,
But nobody can open it.
An excellent binder needs no knots,
But nobody can untie the binding.
This is why,
The sage excels at taking care of everyone;
So abandons no one.
The sage excels at taking care of everything;
So wastes nothing.
This is called intuitive wisdom.
Therefore, those who excel are the teachers of those who don’t;
Those who don’t excel provide object lessons for those who do to learn from.
If you don’t value your teachers,
If you don’t care for your object lessons,
No matter how knowledgeable you think you are,
You are greatly deluded.
Such is the essential truth.
The Daoist principle of effortless action (無為/wúwéi) can be applied to everything we do — no matter whether it’s balancing the books or tying a knot. The way to achieve this state is by assiduously cultivating what Laozi calls “intuitive wisdom” in Chapter 27 of the Daodejing.
Intuitive wisdom means much more than just the skills required to complete a specific task. It also includes a fundamental knowledge of the craft that is not just based on formal training and practice but also honed by extensive experience and close interaction with others in the same field. Gaining your paper qualifications in accountancy doesn’t make you a good accountant; only years of further study, close observation, and deep immersion will enable you to reach a level of expertise that lets you master your work effortlessly without having to rely on props or prompts.
Leadership abilities can also be nurtured through intuitive wisdom. By listening to your mentors, sharing your experiences with the people around you, and learning from the mistakes of others, you build up an instinctive understanding of the environment and the steps required to make sure that everything runs smoothly, and everyone is safe.
Some scholars speculate that the second half of this passage doesn’t belong here because there doesn’t appear to be a logical connection between it and the first half. In some versions, therefore, you will find it in Chapter 62.
Whatever its correct location, the second half shows the inclusive nature of Laozi’s philosophy: even the worst of us have redeeming features and are worth being saved. Or perhaps from a less idealistic level, all of us can learn from each other’s mistakes.
I took this image at Longhu (Dragon Tiger) Mountain, a famous Daoist site about ten miles south of Yingtan in Jiangxi Province. A great place to visit!