Leadership Lessons from Confucius: managing your vital force
Confucius said: “There are three tendencies that exemplary people guard against. When they are young and their vital force is still unstable, they guard against lust. When they are in the prime of life and their vital force has reached its full strength, they guard against contentiousness. When they are old and their vital force has weakened, they guard against greed.”
How to channel the vital force that drives you? The first step is to acknowledge that no matter how well educated and sophisticated you think you have become, you still retain it and –
whether you want to admit it or not — it continues to play a subconscious role in the decisions you make.
The second step is to accept that the thrust of this force can change over time as you reach different stages of your life. The hunger for success you experienced as a young person starting out on your first job may turn into outright greed in your twilight years as you seek to compensate for your growing physical frailty.
The third and most important step is to figure out how to channel the force in positive ways by, for example, harnessing your youthful vigor to build a great company or sharing the benefits of your wealth and wisdom with younger generations. Only you, of course, can decide whether you want to do this, but failure to take action could very well lead to a lonely and miserable old age.
This article features a translation of Chapter 7 of Book 16 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 16 here.
(1) This is the first and indeed only passage in the Analects to feature the term 血氣 (xuèqì), which literally means blood-air. I have chosen to translate it as vital force. Other possibilities include vital essence, vitality, and body-spirit. The concept was developed with much greater vigor by later philosophers such as Mencius, Xunzi, and Zhuangzi.
I took this image in the ancient cedar forests on Alishan in central Taiwan. Some of the trees there are over a thousand years old.