Dao De Jing + Astronaut Training = Aim to Be Zero

Therefore the Sage manages his affairs without ado.
And spreads his teaching without talking.
He denies nothing to the teeming things.
He rears them, but lays no claim to them.
He does his work, but sets no store by it.
He accomplishes his task, but does not dwell upon it.
And yet it is just because he does not dwell on it
That nobody can ever take it away from him.

  • Selection from Chapter 2, Dao De Jing, translated by John C.H. Wu

These lines are from the classic Chinese text, Dao De Jing, a guide to enlightenment and leadership. How might we decipher these archaic lines?

I discovered one answer and modern example in reading Chris Hadfield’s Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. You may remember Chris as the star of the first space music video:

Don’t make the mistake of taking Chris too lightly like I initially did. He’s actually a very well trained and experienced leader as a retired military pilot Colonel, Director of Operations for NASA in Russia, Chief of Robotics, and three flights to space including Commander of the ISS. So, he’s knows something about training and leadership. And the book is an easy and great lesson in how to train leadership and like the title says, a guide to life.

In regards to joining a new crew, he writes:

…I’ve realized that in any new situation, whether it involves an elevator or a rocket ship, you will almost certainly be viewed in one of three ways. As a minus one: actively harmful, someone who creates problems. Or as a zero: your impact is neutral and doesn’t tip the balance one way or the other. Or you’ll be seen as a plus one: someone who actively adds value.

Upon entering a new group, you will be seen as a negative, zero, or positive addition. It’s interesting he doesn’t say that you can BE a negative, zero, or positive addition but rather how you will be judged as one of those three by your crewmates. What should you do? Aim to be a -1, 0, or +1? If you answered +1 then you’re wrong. Chris writes:

Everyone wants to be a plus one, of course. But proclaiming your plus-oneness at the outset almost guarantees you’ll be perceived as a minus one, regardless of the skills you bring to the table or how you actually perform.

Of course, everyone wants to be a plus one yet coming into a new team trying to prove your value will certainty lead to you being seen as a minus one. Again, perception regardless of reality is how he expresses it. Why is this the case? How could wanting to be helpful and bringing your skill sets to help a team be seen automatically as a negative?

This experience actually happens often at the Monastic Academy. Our goal is to train the next generation of contemplative leaders in the skills of wisdom, love, and power.

Many new folks enter the Academy and want to help fix all the problems that they see. They have bright ideas and opinions about everything. And being a spiritual center, everyone is so nice and caring that it feels safe to finally share all your ideas. While the new folks have good intentions, they’re also blind to the context and can end up causing us more trouble. The fact is Monastic Life and Training is often radically different than what anyone has ever experienced before.

One example is when I first joined, I was put onto the business team behind our mindfulness in schools program. We were looking to generate more revenue. I had an internet marketing background and pushed aggressively for my vision and boasted that I could easily raise significant amount of money doing online advertising. Turns out, I was wrong. We made very little. Furthermore, I was ignorant of the years of prior efforts that I was repeating the same mistakes and learning.

At MAPLE, we filter people out by intentionally putting people in stages of training starting with Love/Equanimity. How does this look? Similar to what Astronaut Chris Hadfield says, we begin by placing new trainees in a forced zero position. We often assign people physical manual jobs which have a minimum chance of negatively impacting the rest of the organization whether it’s cooking, landscaping, or cleaning rooms.

But, if they have existing skills and experiences, why not immediately give them the power and opportunity to help and excel? Chris writes:

When you have some skills but don’t fully understand your environment, there is no way you can be a plus one. At best, you can be a zero. But a zero isn’t a bad thing to be. You’re competent enough not to create problems or make more work for everyone else. And you have to be competent, and prove to others that you are, before you can be extraordinary.

As a new addition, it’s not actually possible to be a plus one. The best you can aim to do is to be a zero, a net neutral force. Chris says:

When you’re the least experienced person in the room, it’s not the time to show off. You don’t yet know what you don’t know—and regardless of your abilities, your experience and your level of authority, there will definitely be something you don’t know.

To try to birth some major project will end in failure because you simply do not know the context you are operating in.

At MAPLE, after time, beginners understand how and why we do things the way we do them. In return, new participants gain a rare chance at humility: learning how to listen, pay attention, see what the reality on the ground is first, and support others without your own preferences, ideas, and judgments on how things should be. This process of observation and non-interference naturally develops the capacity for Wisdom.

Knowledge is simply knowing about things independent of conditions. Wisdom is the skill of applying the correct, appropriate knowledge to the current situation or person. In Buddhism, they call this upaya or skillful means. This could be its own long form post in itself. Actions happen within a context. You have to understand the context first before applying action.

Once you have love/equanimity and wisdom, how do you go about contributing without losing that open minded wisdom and humble love?

Chris speaks about one of his role models:

And yet during our course in Utah, he never imposed his expertise on anyone or told us what to do. Instead, he was just quietly competent and helpful. If I needed him, he was there in an instant, but he never elbowed me out of the way to demonstrate his superior skills or made me feel small for not knowing how to do something. Everyone on our team knew that Tom was a plus one. He didn’t have to tell us.

The best leader or team member does not have to show off. In fact, the most respected and valuable player is the one who cares first and foremost about the shared vision, then the group, and lastly themselves. They’re willing to do whatever is necessary. Because they have the experience of understanding the reality of what’s happening, they have the wisdom skill to know what’s needed while also having the equanimity of not bugging out about reality not meeting their expectations or assumptions. This consistent, grounded quality of wisdom and competence naturally earns respect and power from others.

Even as the most experienced person, even as the leader, it’s important to maintain the humility to see one’s self as always a student, a zero. This is the crux of the wisdom of first aim to understand and then be understood. This is having a fundamental trust that in the long haul truth and merit will win out.

Chris writes:

It was also a big part of what made him a plus one on our crew. Not only did he bring a wealth of experience and knowledge, but he conducted himself as though no task was beneath him. He acted as though he considered himself a zero: reasonably competent but no better than anyone else. That made a lasting impression on me. Especially when I’m entering a new situation and don’t yet have the lay of the land, I think about how to aim to be a zero and try to contribute in small ways without creating disruptions

The ideal entry is not to sail in and make your presence known immediately. It’s to ingress without causing a ripple. The best way to contribute to a brand-new environment is not by trying to prove what a wonderful addition you are. It’s by trying to have a neutral impact, to observe and learn from those who are already there, and to pitch in with the grunt work wherever possible. One benefit of aiming to be a zero: it’s an attainable goal. Plus, it’s often a good way to get to plus one. If you’re really observing and trying to learn rather than seeking to impress, you may actually get the chance to do something useful.

Let’s return to the full text of the Dao De Jing Chapter 2:

When all the world recognizes beauty as beauty, this in itself is ugliness.
When all the world recognizes good as good, this in itself is evil.
Indeed, the hidden and the manifest give birth to each other.
Difficult and easy complement each other.
Long and short exhibit each other.
High and low set measure to each other.
Voice and sound harmonize each other.
Back and front follow each other.
Therefore, the Sage manages his affairs without ado.
And spreads his teaching without talking.
He denies nothing to the teeming things.
He rears them, but lays no claim to them.
He does his work, but sets no store by it.
He accomplishes his task, but does not dwell upon it.
And yet it is just because he does not dwell on it
That nobody can ever take it away from him.

Taking the language of this classic Chinese text onto Chris’s teachings to a modern guide to life:

When you try to make the world recognize your brilliance, this in itself is ugliness.
When all the world judges good as good, this in itself creates evil.
+1 and -1 create each other.
By aiming to signal and be seen as a +1, you automatically cause -1.

The Sage does his duty without showing off. He stays as a zero. There is no polarity to zero. Zero is a non-identity, it’s letting your actions speak for themselves. It’s the fluidity and flexibility of wisdom and equanimity to know when to take appropriate action and when to sit back and just listen.


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