The Poem of Accomplishing Greatness
After my spectacular debut poem as a philosophic poet, I’m going to do another poem today! Just kidding, I’m actually just translating a short verse from Lao Tzu’s Dao De Jing, but I did try to make the translation sound poetic. If I had to name this poem, I would call it, “Accomplishing Greatness.”
Big arises from small. Much arises from few.
Return hate with virtue.
Solve the difficult when it’s still easy.
Accomplish the grand through the small details.
Original text: 大小多少。报怨以德。图难于其易，为大于其细。
Source: Dao De Jing, Chapter 63
“Big arises from small. Many arises from few.”
This line reminds me of The Argument of the Growing Heap, which states,
“If ten coins are not enough to make a man rich, what if you add one coin? What if you add another? Finally, you will have to say that no one can be rich unless one coin can make him so.”
To relate this to our daily lives, we need to break down big goals into small recurring actions and then persist in those actions. My newsletter (and later blog) is an example of this line. What started as a tiny weekly newsletter three years ago, through consistency, has now become a website that has had over 3000 visitors in its first year.
“Return hate with virtue.”
When I first read these four lines, I felt this second line was out of place. The other three lines are all telling us the importance of small matters, why was there a random line about hate and virtue in the middle? Then I realized that all sages, be it Confucius, Lao Tzu, Socrates, Seneca, or the Buddha, teach people to succeed in their virtues first and foremost. After all, if you want to achieve anything great in life, your virtues are bound to be tested.
An example that illustrates this line is of a person named Dou Yanshan (竇燕山) from the Five Dynasties period in China about 1000 years ago. One of his servants stole two hundred thousand dollars from him, which was a lot of money! The servant was very scared about how his master might punish him, so he fled to another country. He also left his daughter there with a note saying, “Sell my daughter to collect the debt I owe you.” Dou Yanshan didn’t respond with anger or disgust, but rather, he chose to forgive the servant and raised the young girl as his own daughter. Aside from this, he also accumulated many other virtuous deeds throughout his life, which made him a recorded role model in Chinese history.
Although the servant didn’t treat Dou Yanshan with “hate” per se, I interpret “hate” here as any vice or ill-intentioned behavior. Being a person of great virtues like Dou Yanshan is a big task, and it is accomplished through the accumulation of small matters, such as being patient towards others when they talk too much or being warm-mannered towards others when they make small mistakes.
“Solve the difficult when it’s still easy.”
All big problems start off as small problems that can be solved easily. Being able to detect small problems and nip them right away is crucial. An example that comes to my mind is health: people don’t get major diseases out-of-the-blue; it’s accumulated over time. A couple of years ago, when I got a really bad skin illness, at first, I thought it was an allergic reaction to something I ate recently. Later, I learned that I had accumulated toxins for multiple years in the past, and this skin disease showed up after my accumulation surpassed the tipping point. Healing from that illness took over year.
Another example is relationship health. Don’t let minor miscommunications or unhappiness slide under the rug. Solving these small problems accumulates wins in the relationship, while neglecting them accumulates resentment. If the resentment reaches a tipping point, then the “easy” has become “difficult”, and you’ll need the virtues of someone like Dou Yanshan to keep the relationship alive.
“Accomplish the grand through the small details.”
This line reminds me of the phrase “Focus on the process”, which I learned from Ryan Holiday in his book, The Obstacle is the Way. Holiday explains, “The process is about doing the right things, right now. Not worrying about what might happen later, or the results, or the whole picture.”
Happiness Gretchen Rubin also says that a key to happiness is to “Enjoy the process.” Many people delay their happiness until after they achieve something big. But that moment of happiness is fleeting. If we enjoy the process, then we can have long-term happiness that is not dependent on the result.
Throughout these past few years, I’ve focused on doing the small details, which is writing the weekly newsletter or blog post, with my best effort. Then I just let the outcome be whatever it is. A big reason I persisted is because I enjoy the process. Whereas the first line emphasizes the importance of persisting in small actions, this fourth line is telling us to do those small actions well. Grand achievements are accomplished by persistence plus conscientiousness in the small matters.
Break down big goals into small actions and then persist in them.
Build your moral character by responding to vice with virtue.
Detect problems while they’re small and nip them right away.
Focus on and enjoy the process.