Suppose you’re the lead singer of an up-and-coming rock band. Your lead guitarist just left the band to join another group, so you’re auditioning new players. I answer your Craigslist ad with an enthusiastic email:
Guitar is my life! I’ve spent the last two years focused on learning to play the guitar. I’ve dedicated hours a day working toward this goal. I’ve downloaded apps, joined Facebook groups, read dozens of books and magazine articles, and watched hundreds of hours of instructional videos on YouTube.
Impressed with my dedication, you invite me to audition. When the time comes, I arrive empty-handed and awkwardly ask if you have a guitar I could borrow. You question me further and I admit that I’ve never actually held a guitar before. At this point, you end the audition and send me on my way. Although I might be knowledgeable about the guitar, it’s obvious that I don’t actually know how to play.
This sounds ridiculous, but it’s a painfully accurate description of how many of us pursue self-improvement. We read self-help books or articles about weight loss, for example, but stop short of actually applying what we’ve learned.
It is not enough to know, we must also apply; it is not enough to will, we must also do.Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
It’s not enough to know what to do. We must do what we know.
Learning has been a part of Ruism (Confucianism) from the very start, but it’s never just been about acquiring knowledge. It’s always been about applying what is learned. In fact, the very first line in The Analects–the first words of Confucius are:
Isn’t it satisfying to learn and apply what you’ve learned?Confucius, Analects 1.1
Ru (those who practice Ruism) are well-known as scholars. It’s easy to imagine bookworms in their studies, poring over old books and writing essays. There is some truth to this stereotype–most Ru spend time reading the classics of the tradition every day.
But the goal is not acquiring knowledge for its own sake. The Ru approach to learning is practical. We want to do something with this knowledge. We learn so that we can apply what we learn in our everyday lives–to become better people, to improve our families, our communities, and the world.
One way to apply what you’ve learned is to set a goal and track your progress. Suppose, for example, that after reading about playing the guitar, I set myself a goal of playing a C major scale. I then practice every day–tracking my progress with a practice journal–until I can play the scale flawlessly.
This is the exact technique that many Ru use to improve themselves morally. Let’s look at an example. During my daily reading, suppose I read the following passage from The Analects:
If your words lack humility, you’ll find it tough to back them up.Confucius, Analects, 14.20
After some honest self-reflection, I realize that this is an area I need to work on on my own life. I have a habit of promising more than I can deliver. As a result, I let people down and, over time, they don’t trust me to do what I say.
To handle this problem, I set myself a goal to think carefully before committing to anything. Then, every night, before bed, I think back on my day and make a note in my journal of every time that day that I’ve succeeded in reflecting before promising to do anything and every time I’ve failed to do so.
Just like learning to play the C major scale, it might take some time to reach my goal. But, by making a good effort and keeping myself accountable through my journal, I’ll eventually get there.
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