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Raymond Tang: Be humble -- and other lessons from the philosophy of water

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How do we find fulfillment in a world that's constantly changing? Raymond Tang struggled with this question until he came across the ancient Chinese philosophy of the Tao Te Ching. In it, he found a passage comparing goodness to water, an idea he's now applying to his everyday life. In this charming talk, he shares three lessons he's learned so far from the "philosophy of water." "What would water do?" Tang asks. "This simple and powerful question ... has changed my life for the better."

- IT manager
Westpac's Raymond Tang wants to help bridge the East and the West by exploring and applying ancient Chinese philosophy in the modern world. Full bio

You may know this feeling:
00:12
you wake up to multiple unread
notifications on your mobile phone.
00:14
Your calendar is already
packed with meetings,
00:19
sometimes double- or triple-booked.
00:21
You feel engaged, you feel busy.
00:24
In fact, you feel productive.
00:27
But at the end of it all,
something still feels missing.
00:30
You try to figure out what it is.
00:36
But before you do,
00:38
the next day starts all over again.
00:40
That was how I felt two years ago.
00:44
I felt stressed; I felt anxious.
00:48
I felt a bit trapped.
00:50
The world around me
was moving very quickly.
00:53
And I didn't know what to do.
00:57
I started wondering to myself:
01:00
How do I keep up with all this?
01:02
How do we find fulfillment
01:04
in a world that's literally changing
as fast as we can think,
01:06
or maybe even faster?
01:11
I started looking for answers.
01:15
I spoke to many people,
I spoke to my friends,
01:17
I spoke to my family.
01:20
I even read many self-help books.
01:21
But I couldn't find anything satisfactory.
01:25
In fact, the more self-help books I read,
01:28
the more stressed and anxious I became.
01:30
(Laughter)
01:33
It was like I was feeding
my mind with junk food,
01:34
and I was becoming mentally obese.
01:37
(Laughter)
01:40
I was about to give up,
01:42
until one day, I found this.
01:45
"The Tao Te Ching:
The Book of the Way and Its Virtue."
01:48
This is an ancient Chinese
philosophy classic
01:54
that was written
more than 2,600 years ago.
01:57
And it was by far the thinnest
and the smallest book on the bookshelf.
02:00
It only had 81 pages.
02:06
And each page had a short poem.
02:08
I remember I flipped
to one particular poem.
02:11
Here it is.
02:15
It's beautiful, isn't it?
02:16
(Laughter)
02:17
Let me read it out to you.
02:19
"The supreme goodness is like water.
02:21
It benefits all things without contention.
02:25
In dwelling, it stays grounded.
02:29
In being, it flows to depths.
02:32
In expression, it is honest.
02:35
In confrontation, it stays gentle.
02:38
In governance, it does not control.
02:42
In action, it aligns to timing.
02:45
It is content with its nature
02:48
and therefore cannot be faulted."
02:50
Wow! I remember
when I first read this passage.
02:54
I felt the biggest chills down my spine.
02:57
I still feel that today,
reading it to you guys.
03:01
My anxiety and stress
just suddenly disappeared.
03:05
Ever since that day,
03:09
I've been trying to apply the concepts
in this passage to my day-to-day life.
03:10
And today, I'd like to share with you
three lessons I learned so far
03:16
from this philosophy of water --
03:19
three lessons that I believe
have helped me find greater fulfillment
03:21
in almost everything that I do.
03:25
The first lesson is about humility.
03:29
If we think about water
flowing in a river,
03:32
it is always staying low.
03:34
It helps all the plants grow
and keeps all the animals alive.
03:37
It doesn't actually draw
any attention to itself,
03:41
nor does it need
any reward or recognition.
03:44
It is humble.
03:47
But without water's humble contribution,
03:49
life as we know it may not exist.
03:52
Water's humility taught me
a few important things.
03:57
It taught me that instead of acting
like I know what I'm doing
04:00
or I have all the answers,
04:04
it's perfectly OK to say,
04:05
"I don't know.
04:07
I want to learn more,
04:09
and I need your help."
04:10
It also taught me that, instead
of promoting my glory and success,
04:12
it is so much more satisfying to promote
the success and glory of others.
04:17
It taught me that, instead of doing things
where I can get ahead,
04:21
it so much more fulfilling and meaningful
04:25
to help other people overcome
their challenges so they can succeed.
04:27
With a humble mindset,
04:33
I was able to form a lot richer
connections with the people around me.
04:34
I became genuinely interested
in the stories and experiences
04:39
that make them unique and magical.
04:42
Life became a lot more fun,
04:45
because every day I'd discover
new quirks, new ideas
04:46
and new solutions to problems
I didn't know before,
04:49
all thanks to the ideas
and help from others.
04:52
All streams eventually flow to the ocean
04:57
because it is lower than them.
04:59
Humility gives water its power.
05:02
But I think it gives us the capacity
to remain grounded,
05:06
to be present,
05:11
to learn from and be transformed by
the stories of the people around us.
05:12
The second lesson I learned
is about harmony.
05:18
If we think about
water flowing towards a rock,
05:21
it will just flow around it.
05:24
It doesn't get upset,
it doesn't get angry,
05:26
it doesn't get agitated.
05:28
In fact, it doesn't feel much at all.
05:30
When faced with an obstacle,
somehow water finds a solution,
05:32
without force, without conflict.
05:37
When I was thinking through this,
I began to understand
05:41
why I was feeling stressed out
in the first place.
05:44
Instead of working in harmony
with my environment,
05:47
I was working against it.
05:50
I was forcing things to change
05:52
because I was consumed
by the need to succeed or to prove myself.
05:53
In the end, nothing did.
05:58
And I got more frustrated.
06:00
By simply shifting my focus
from trying to achieve more success
06:03
to trying to achieve more harmony,
06:06
I was immediately able
to feel calm and focused again.
06:09
I started asking questions like:
06:13
Will this action bring me greater harmony
06:15
and bring more harmony to my environment?
06:18
Does this align with my nature?
06:20
I became more comfortable
simply being who I am,
06:24
rather than who I'm supposed to be
or expected to be.
06:27
Work actually became easier,
06:31
because I stopped focusing
on things that I cannot control
06:33
and only on the things that I can.
06:36
I stopped fighting with myself,
06:38
and I learned to work
with my environment to solve its problems.
06:41
Nature does not hurry.
06:46
Yet, everything is accomplished.
06:48
That's Tao Te Ching's way
of describing the power of harmony.
06:51
Just as water is able to find a solution
without force or conflict,
06:56
I believe we can find a greater
sense of fulfillment in our endeavors
07:01
by shifting focus
from achieving more success
07:05
to achieving more harmony.
07:08
The third lesson I learned
from the philosophy of water
07:11
is about openness.
07:15
Water is open to change.
07:17
Depending on the temperature,
it can be a liquid, solid or gas.
07:20
Depending on the medium it's in,
07:24
it can be a teapot, a cup
or a flower vase.
07:26
In fact, it's water's ability to adapt
and change and remain flexible
07:30
that made it so enduring through the ages,
07:34
despite all the changes
in the environment.
07:37
We also live in a world today
of constant change.
07:41
We can no longer expect to work
to a static job description
07:44
or follow a single career path.
07:48
We, too, are expected to constantly
reinvent and refresh our skills
07:50
to stay relevant.
07:54
In our organization,
we host a lot of hackathons,
07:57
where small groups
or individuals come together
08:00
to solve a business problem
in a compressed time frame.
08:02
And what's interesting to me
is that the teams that usually win
08:05
are not the ones with the most
experienced team members,
08:08
but the ones with members
who are open to learn,
08:12
who are open to unlearn
08:15
and who are open to helping each other
08:16
navigate through
the changing circumstances.
08:19
Life is like a hackathon in some way.
08:23
It's calling to each and every one of us
to step up, to open up
08:26
and cause a ripple effect.
08:30
Now, we can stay behind closed doors
and continue to be paralyzed
08:32
by our self-limiting beliefs, such as:
08:36
"I will never be able to talk
about Chinese philosophy
08:39
in front of a huge audience."
08:42
(Laughter)
08:43
Or we can just open up and enjoy the ride.
08:44
It can only be an amazing experience.
08:47
So humility, harmony and openness.
08:51
Those are the three lessons I learned
from the philosophy of water so far.
08:54
They nicely abbreviate to H-H-O,
08:58
or H2O.
09:01
(Laughter)
09:02
And they have become
my guiding principles in life.
09:03
So nowadays, whenever I feel stressed,
09:07
unfulfilled, anxious
or just not sure what to do,
09:10
I simply ask the question:
09:14
What would water do?
09:16
(Laughter)
09:17
This simple and powerful question
inspired by a book
09:18
written long before the days
of bitcoin, fintech and digital technology
09:22
has changed my life for the better.
09:27
Try it, and let me know
how it works for you.
09:29
I would love to hear from you.
09:32
Thank you.
09:33
(Applause)
09:34

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About the speaker:

Raymond Tang - IT manager
Westpac's Raymond Tang wants to help bridge the East and the West by exploring and applying ancient Chinese philosophy in the modern world.

Why you should listen

Raymond Tang grew up in Guangzhou, China. An advocate of cultural diversity and inclusion in the workplace, he founded the Cultural Leadership Toastmasters Club at Westpac to help individuals find and share their unique selves and cultural experiences. He is also actively connecting culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) talents with growth opportunities through his involvement with Westpac's Cultural Diversity Leadership Employee Action Group.

A technology geek at heart, Tang is excited by the possibilities at the intersection of technology and philosophy. He believes that great technology should help us connect deeper with ourselves, so that we can discover different ways to make a difference whilst staying true to who we are as individuals.

More profile about the speaker
Raymond Tang | Speaker | TED.com