“These ideas are so extraordinary that if you take them seriously, they will change your life.” That’s the guarantee Professor Michael Puett makes to undergraduates at the beginning of the 13-week course he teaches at Harvard University. It is the most popular course on the whole campus: Puett plays to packed halls that seat over 1,000 students and his famously engaging lectures are done without any notes or slides: 50 minutes of pure talk.
So what startling new life-changing wisdom does he impart? The fact is that it is ancient wisdom, drawn directly from the thought of five Chinese philosophers— Confucius, Mencius, Laozi, Zhuangzi and Xunzi—all of whom lived over 2,000 years ago. It is Puett’s contention that each of these thinkers offers a “profoundly counterintuitive perspective on how to become a better human being and how to create a better world”. The stuff of his lectures has now been distilled into The Path: A New Way to Think About Everything (Viking, April), co- written by Puett with journalist and author Christine Gross-Loh, who first went to investigate his renowned Harvard lectures for US magazine the Atlantic. What she saw impressed her so much that it sparked the idea for a book, to which Puett readily agreed.
Billed by Viking as a “revolutionary guide to living well . . . set to become the must-have smart thinking book of 2016”, The Path is also the antithesis of a self-help book because it challenges the prevailing but “false and limiting” Western construct that each of us has a true essential self. Actually, it argues, we are messy creatures, constantly pulled in different directions in a changing, unpredictable world. Therefore any soul- searching to find our “authentic selves” is futile. And instead of thinking big in order to change our lives, we will only really begin to change by starting with small steps. The Path is about training ourselves to become better people, bit by bit. Observing how it feels when we smile at a stranger, hold the door open for someone or do the thing we love doing most; close attention to such small clues, over time, can lead to profound change.
When we meet during the authors’ pre-publication trip to London, Puett, who impresses as a genial, ebullient presence rather than as some scholarly sage, explains why he believes that the teachings of five ancient thinkers are eminently suited to our 21st- century climate of rapid cultural change. “The mid-first millennium BC was a very similar time. The aristocratic Bronze Age societies which had dominated for 2,000 years all began to collapse. And a time of debate then developed right across Eurasia, with Plato and Aristotle in Greece; the Buddha in India; and the Chinese philosophers in this book asking similar questions, all at roughly the same time, about how we should live, and what kind of societies we should try to build”.
Confucius is by far the best known of the Chinese philosophers and yet, says Puett, he has often been cast as “a bad guy, the ultimate traditional thinker who says we should all be following rituals which tell us what to do. And we, as modern people, don’t like being dictated to. But his understanding of rituals is kind of the opposite of what we think.” In reality, our “true selves” are often just patterns of behaviour we have fallen into, explains Puett. Confucian rituals are like “as- if” role plays which ask us to briefly become different people in order to begin breaking these patterns. So instead of starting every day being grumpy and sniping at everyone because you are not a “morning person”, you ritually play the part of someone who is one, and say something nice at breakfast instead. Over time, you will learn to change your “stuck” behaviour and open up a “constellation of possibilities” for yourself.
Also striking is the advice of late Confucian thinker Mencius, who says that good decisions come not from rationally planning things out but from preparing the ground well, as a farmer does, in order for good things to grow naturally. And so is his idea that bringing one’s rational mind and emotions together is the key to better decision-making. Tellingly, Chinese has a single word that means both heart and mind: “xin”.
Remarkably, modern neuroscience seems to bear out what these Chinese philosophers intuited over 2,000 years ago. “Experiments show that throughout the day, even someone smiling at us, or frowning at us, can suddenly affect our moods, which can affect how we act and make decisions. The Path is about learning not to let such things affect us, by altering the way we respond to the world”, explains Gross-Loh.
I’m curious to know what lasting effect Puett’s lectures have had on 18- and 19-year-old Harvard undergraduates; presumably some of the brightest young minds in the US. “Students of that age tend to come into college thinking: ‘I’ll figure out who I am, make my life plan, change the world’,” says Puett. “And the problem, as many students tell me, is that they can’t figure out who they are. So it really resonates when they learn about these philosophers who say that looking for your authentic self is not the way to change yourself for the better.” In her Atlantic feature, Gross-Loh cites the case of one student—a “maths and science whiz” —who changed his major from economics to foreign languages after Puett’s course made him realise his true passion.
In China itself, Puett tells me, after decades of a society based on Western ideologies, people are returning to the texts of these ancient philosophers amid a sense that they have somehow lost their values. So does the teacher of The Path walk its walk himself? “Absolutely. I even use myself as a negative example. In college I studied Western history and philosophy, but on the side I was always reading about China because I found it so interesting. I told myself that to study it would be impractical because I didn’t have time to learn Chinese, so I decided to follow my plan of going to graduate school and becoming a professor of Western history and philosophy. It came down literally to the evening when I needed to choose a graduate school. And I could not decide, and could not decide, and it got to midnight. And I realised it was because I actually wanted to study China. So I shifted gear and went in a completely different direction. I say to my students: it shouldn’t have had to come down to that night. If I had been more willing to explore the things which really intrigued me, I wouldn’t have needed to make that dramatic break. I tell them: don’t wait for that one moment when you have to change everything. If you take small steps on a daily basis, those seemingly massive decisions become incomparably easier.”
The idea of calling the book The Path came partly out of an article about Puett’s lectures in student newspaper the Harvard Crimson. It contrasted “the Plan”, the grand plan with which a lot of students arrive at university, with the more expansive idea of “the Path”. Except that The Path is not a single path, says Puett with a grin. “It’s actually a play on the opening line of Laozi’s Daodejing, which says: ‘The Way that can be made into a clearly defined way is not the enduring way.’ So if you find yourself thinking, “I can lay out a perfect path for my life’, then you’ve missed the Path.”
This article originally appeared in The Bookseller magazine of 19th February 2016.
Picture: © Katherine Anne Rose