Lessons from Chinese caligraphy | Marshall Shen

Lessons from Chinese caligraphy

Lessons from Chinese caligraphy

Chinese characters are expressive and composite. There are 3000 plus characters, and much of those characters come from the composition of other characters. The way some characters are composed serves as an elegant, small lesson about life.

稳中有急 (Slow is fast). Think about last time you were in a rush (急), you had an urgent issue to manage, and you probably felt tired afterward. Now imagine for many hours at work you feel the same rush, you feel tired after work most of the time, and time flies by fast, and you are still busy all the time. When many issues emerge, the instinct is to solve them right away. The fight-or-flight instinct drives us to tackle the issue right away, without much holistic thought about why cause the problems and how we tackle them.

When we step back and prioritize, we also feel compelled to come up with a solution right away. But sometimes that rushed feeling to come up with a solution or priority right away doesn’t lead us to good outcomes. In addition, we don’t just want one good outcome, rather we want a consistent delivery of good outcomes.

In order to move fast consistently, we need to establish habits slowly to be steady. “Steady” here means a methodical way to optimize based on constraints, and solve based on first principles. When facing a problem that compelled us to hurry (急), take a deep breath and determine to be steady (稳).

静中有争 (Calm is compete). One invisible drive for change and progress is competition (争). Business competes by constantly innovating; athletes compete by pushing above their personal best. A good competitor is rooted in a good mindset, and one characteristic of that mindset is calm (静).

A good competitor is calm because she has a growth mindset that she can always do better, and she focuses on being a better version of herself and is confident that she can improve when she puts her heart and soul into it. That state of calm (静) brings focus and flow. And it serves as the foundation of deliberate practice and eventual mastery.

忍中有刃 (Pain brings resilience). No pain, no gain. But just experiencing pain is not enough. As Ray Dalio puts it “pain + reflection = progress”. When we face failure or loss, pain (刃) occurs in our heart, and our instinct is to get away from the pain. Our physical and emotional being naturally avoids pain for evolutionary reasons, it is our primal brain at work.

However, when facing those painful moments, if we take a deep breath, and let our higher level brain take charge, then we can ask ourselves what we can learn from experiencing the pain. Sometimes it’s extremely difficult to do at the moments of feeling the pain, but after the immediate physical pain pass, we can reflect and have dialogues with ourselves. When we reflect and learn from our painful experience, we gain extra insights about ourselves or a situation.

The society is constantly changing, full of competitions, and we will experience failures or pain because we are human. These facts are there throughout human history. And I hope the lessons derived from Chinese calligraphy can help you navigate different situations.