Success is as dangerous as failure; hope is as hollow as fear.
Lao Tzu (translation: Stephen Mitchell)

One interpretation of this line from the Tao Te Ching supports a popular piece of advice: You shouldn’t care about success or failure. Caring only makes you anxious and competitive. If you succeed at not caring, you neither hope nor fear.

The secret to success is letting go of success. Popular though this advice is,* it makes about as much sense as a campaign to get people to stop breathing.


Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup

Of course it’s useful to have some flexibility in how you pursue success. It’s sometimes necessary to let go of fruitless campaigns, and anyway so many things could be called “success” that if you can’t let go of one, you can’t consider the others. Letting go of success and failure, hope and fear certainly belongs in one’s repertoire for navigating life’s rivers and forks wisely.

No one needs flexibility more than the person who thinks the secret to success is not caring about success. That idea is best let go. We’ll each have plenty of time for not caring about success after we die. While we’re alive, we’re success-seeking creatures, an assertion that should go without saying because all creatures are, by definition, seekers of success. If your body didn’t demonstrate a preference for success, you wouldn’t even be here.

Pressed on the absurdity of the “don’t care” advice, most of its champions will say “yes, well of course you should care about success and failure but . . . ” and then try suggest that some simple distinction can be made between successes worth and not worth caring about. This backpedaling is either disingenuous or softheaded.

I wish there were a simple distinction between bad and good caring, because it’s true, as the Buddha said, all suffering arises from unmeet-able expectations, in other words, care that comes to naught. The wisdom to know with 100 percent accuracy the difference between worthwhile and worthless caring would be a real key to success, but in this uncertain and ever-evolving world such perfect wisdom is not available. Evolution in all of its arenas from biology to culture to personal to interpersonal is a trial-and-error process for approximating such wisdom. Life strives for that wisdom. And yet we all still find ourselves making mistakes, caring when we shouldn’t and not caring when we should. (See Suffering and Insensitivity.) Were there some simple way to distinguish between good and bad caring, with all of us searching for it we’d have it by now. So rather than possessing perfect wisdom to know the difference between what we can and can’t change, we pray for it.

There’s a better (more successful) way to interpret the line from the Tao. It’s about the hollowness of hope and fear when treated as answers instead of questions.

People who treat hope as an answer say resolutely, “Well, I have hope.” Their declaration is both upbeat and a conversation stopper. Hope is this good thing to possess. If you have it, wonderful things happen. End of story.

Yes, hope can tip the scale a bit in favor of a well-conceived and implemented approach to a problem, but without an implemented plan it’s worthless. It’s worse than worthless. Declaring hope as an answer essentially says, “I can visualize a positive outcome in my head–and that’s where it’s going to stay.”

Hope as an answer is magical thinking. Declaring it sets a low standard on realism, at the level of “Let’s pretend.” Once someone has declared hope as an answer, if there’s going to be any subsequent talk about plans for achieving success, it had better be good. You don’t declare “Well, I’ve got hope!” and then drop a downer into the conversation by saying, “Here’s a plan we should consider though it has a slim chance of working.” Hope as an answer demands a promising solution, so if you don’t have one hope forces you to pretend an unpromising plan is promising: “Well, I have hope that we can end world hunger. People will certainly volunteer to make the necessary sacrifices.”

Resolute hope tosses realistic odds assessment out the window. It’s faith, blind faith, meaning it’s a commitment to ignore evidence dressed up to look heroic.

Alternatively, there’s hope as a question. Instead of “We’ll, I’m hopeful. Period.” it’s “I’m hoping to find a realistic plan to implement, and now I’m going to search for one.” It’s hope as demand for and not a supply of a solution.

Next week, I’ll talk more about this distinction.

* For an account of how this advice draws large business audiences, check out this New Yorker report from last week. http://www.newyorker.com/talk/2007/10/15/071015ta_talk_macfarquhar