We live in a hyper-competitive world and strength is the ultimate strategy for coming out on top. We demand that our public companies continue from strength to strength, at the expense of all else. We want strong leaders that use their power to intimidate and exterminate the problems we face. We worship innovators that bend, shout and manipulate the world to the shape of their liking.
There seem to be fewer places where gentleness is valued. Going with the flow, improvising or slowing down is seen as a recipe for failure. You don’t listen, you shout. In a world that values strength, we’ve become stiff. We’re afraid to be flexible and responsive.
But this hyper-competitiveness comes at a cost. It’s now clear that we’re also living in an increasingly fragile world. We’ve pushed ourselves to the edge, obsessed with dominating nature, industry and each other. From the job market to the environment, we see that the logic of strength leads in a single direction. It’s driven by a need to win at all costs, and to control everything.
Ever feel tired by it all? I do. And I want to know if this is the best way to get things done.
Being comfortable with the unexpected
Life is unpredictable. Despite the uncertainty and fragility we see, our attachment to strength still prevails. In fact, in an increasingly uncertain world, we appear to be clinging harder than ever to these outdated concepts with the hope they will eventually save us. No matter how hard we try, no manual can guide us through every twist and turn.
“The unexpected is our constant companion. Blind alleys, unheralded turns and serendipitous connections are everyday stuff. However hard we work to avoid it, events we didn’t foresee send us off course, from a puncture to a deflating economy. Life is a whirling torrent for which nobody has a script.” – Rob Poynton
We often use strength to assert control over something (or someone). But as Rob Poynton reminds us, the unexpected is all we can expect. Look at any civilisation, company or leader, and you’ll see that maintaining control forever is impossible. What goes up must eventually come down, which is to say that any power we achieve in a situation will always be temporary. Control must always be re-established while an adaptive, gentle approach can be sustained indefinitely.
Rob’s quote asks us to question the status quo. It emphasises the fact that what we need is a new idea of strength, power and leadership. One that will allow us to thrive in a changing world and be comfortable with uncertainty. Something that empowers anyone to lead when needed. Because when anyone can be a leader, we need many ways of leading.
We’re being asked to innovate, to be open, to get involved and join the game. And learning to be a little weaker might be the best way for us to do that.
Is there another way?
Weakness has a bad reputation. We see it as soft, frail and useless. But instead of defining weakness as an absence of strength, let’s look at it as an equal alternative. One that embodies the values that strength lacks. Perhaps by doing this, we can unlock the true potential of weakness in our lives.
“Real power lies in weakness rather than strength, in water rather than rocks, in softness and suppleness rather than hardness.” – Michael Puett
What Michael suggests in this passage isn’t a new idea; it’s been around for thousands of years. We’ve just forgotten about it. The Tao Te Ching is a classic Chinese Daoist text that was written by a mysterious figure called Laozi (the name translates to ‘Old Master’ which, of course, doesn’t shed much light on who this person was). It’s unclear when he lived and wrote the text, but copies as old as 400 BC have transported this work from the ancient world to modern times. In it, Laozi paints a picture of personal and political power that contrasts our current perspective.
In his book ‘The Path’, Michael Puett explores the work of Laozi and the idea of weakness as a powerful approach to life by starting with a short thought experiment:
Imagine that you’re walking through a nearby woodland.
You come to a clearing where a tall oak rises high above the forest canopy. The thick trunk and many branches are impressive. It’s the picture of strength. Not too far from the large tree is a young sapling, which is much smaller and far less imposing. As you look up at the tall oak, it would be easy to miss this fresh new addition to the forest. Later that evening a terrible storm sweeps over the woods. It blows all night long with a vicious wind and bright lightning. The next day you walk again to the clearing and, to your surprise, find that the tall oak has broken and fell. Its size and rigidity were no match for the storm. The sapling, however, has survived. It was able to bend and move with the wind, and as a result, it still stands the following morning.
Puett’s story shows us that our typical idea of strength is not always so powerful. It points towards the limitations of our obsession with strength and begins to show us how weakness can be advantageous.
The difference between weakness and strength
When the world seems to worship strength as the ultimate goal, can an individual operate differently and still succeed? It can seem that our focus on weakness easily translates to apathy or inaction. Nothing could be further from the truth. Here are some of the differences between these two approaches:
Fit for purpose
Let’s dig into an example that unpacks the difference in this comparison.
The Japanese martial art Aikido, with it’s Art Of Peace philosophy, provides an alternative framework for how to progress through life. Traditional martial arts tend to emphasise strength to create a submission. Aikido takes a different approach that illustrates a ‘gentle way’. Instead of striking to land the perfect blow (accuracy), Aikido works with the movement of an opponent (momentum) to create a beneficial situation. The Aikido student will never attack (push) but focuses on responding to the energy directed toward them (pull). Rather than trying to beat their opponent (control), they’ll seek to find balance with them instead (influence).
In comparison to the pursuit of strength, the ‘gentle way’ may appear weak or soft. But this is precisely where it draws its super-powers from.
How to be successfully weak
Being weak, in the sense that we’re describing here, is an attitude. In this way, it’s more about your style in life than any singular tactic or hack that you can learn from a book. And as with any attitude or style, to make it authentic you need to work on it over time until it feels as easy as breathing. Breathing is a good metaphor because if we try too hard to breathe it becomes awkward and forced. Eventually, we always need to come back to the natural rhythm of the breath. Finding strength in our weakness is about relaxing into a more harmonious rhythm with the world around us.
“The art of living is neither careless drifting on the one hand nor fearful clinging on the other. It consists in being sensitive to each moment, in regarding it as utterly new and unique, in having the mind open and wholly receptive.” ― Alan Watts
As Alan Watts suggests here, the art of living isn’t another goal we should add to our to-do list. It’s a way of being that we come to inhabit naturally. If you’ve ever mastered a skill, like playing the piano, riding a bike or shuffling cards, you’ll remember how hard it was at the beginning. But despite this difficulty, the quickest way to learning what you’re after isn’t to force things. That just adds pressure and results in us tensing up.
We do need to apply effort, but we shouldn’t labour our actions. Noticing more about the process allows us to remain engaged without trying to be in control. We can aim to be open searching for the opportunities that appear, moment by moment. We let go, gently repeat our motions until we become one with them. This is spontaneity, trying not to try and weakness in action. It unlocks a new horizon of being and doing within us. One where the possibilities are endless and we may all arrive smiling.