How an Ancient Philosopher Beat Google to Finding Productivity

Madhav Malhotra
7 min readOct 18, 2019

When you think of religion today, it can seem a bit traditional or yesteryear-ish. You might think of *pristine* chapels or *grand* mosques — all beautiful ✨, but nevertheless old.

That being said, there’s a whole another type of religion that revolves around nature and spirits, instead of monuments and divinity. Instead of gathering in communities to worship the gods, these (often Asian) religions focus on the self and how you interact with the environment 🍂.

And they’re not just niche beliefs either. Hundreds of millions of people believe in religions like Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism (many in China). All of these people started a new way of life, embraced new philosophies, and created religions that are very different from what we usually imagine.

Over the past week, I’ve been learning more about Taoism — one of those key religions in China. It’s not as impactful as Buddhism or Confucianism (about 30 million people practice it), BUT it is still an incredibly influential lifestyle.

Taoism’s Mysterious Movie Beginning — But in Real Life

So imagine a stranger showing up from the mist, near the desolate mountain ranges of the Himalayas. Sounds like the opening of the next big blockbuster, right? 😀

An actual scene from the Secret Life of Walter Mitty :-)

Well that’s how Taoism started: with an unknown scholar showing up to the Chinese borderlands. Legend says his name was Lao Tzu and he was one of the foremost scholars in China 2500 years ago.

A border guard, recognising Lao Tzu’s wisdom, asked him to write down his philosophical lessons for China before he left. So Lao Tzu left behind his legacy in his short book, the Tao Te Ching (Book of the Way).

Who could’ve predicted that it would go on to start an entire religion? As this text gained popularity, the Tang dynasty spread it as the state’s official religion.

So what was this magical mountain text that contained enough wisdom to start a religion??? Turns out this relatively short text (only about 5000 words) has a lot of hidden meanings with many lessons taught in paradoxes.

Lesson #1: Yin and Yang — The Balance of Life

The underlying belief throughout Taoism is the contrast and balance between opposites. In nature, you have the strong and weak, the light and dark, the males and females, or the Yang and the Yin.

The famous Yin Yang symbol has a greater meaning than pop culture makes it out to.

Well, you might notice that in the light Yang, there is dark Yin and vice versa. Taoism emphasises the implications of this. If there is darkness in light and light in darkness, then these two opposites really have more similarities than people think. 🤔

Taoists see the fundamental forces behind Yin and Yang in a constant balance. There has to be weakness to create strength and vice versa. To oppose one or the other would be to defy nature.

So for a Taoist, it wouldn’t make sense to live life in the pursuit of a singular, obsessive goal (ex. beauty). There has to be a balance, so why waste efforts trying to bring about one thing or another?

When people see things as beautiful,
ugliness is created. — Tao Te Ching

Instead, a Taoist might make advantage of this balance to trust that positivity would eventually return in negative times and life’s worries would eventually turn back into harmony.🎵

Maybe that sounds idealistic in our times… but couldn’t we all use a little bit more balance? To manage career goals with personal ones? To trust that negativity willeventually come to an end?

Lesson #2: Our Old Friend Nature — and Her Paradoxes

Picture a small stream trickling through the deserts of Arizona 6 million years ago. Here it was bringing a weak, fragile supply of water in this inhospitable environment of resilient, timeless boulders.

Who could’ve imagined that 6 million years later, this stream would grow to the Colorado river and carve out the immense Grand Canyon?

All this once started off with a small stream of water in the desert.

How can a meager supply of water forge a path out of the mighty rocks? A weak force isn’t meant to best something so strong, right?

Well, water is one of the most obvious contradictions to this. It is supposedly weak, yet it can erode any rock in the world. ⛏️

Water is the softest and most yielding substance.
Yet nothing is better than water,
for overcoming the hard and rigid — Tao Te Ching

Taoism is full of these paradoxes about the force of nature. And it uses these principles to guide the way you live your life.

If something weak like water can have the ultimate strength, then isn’t it possible for you to be strong despite your weaknesses? Why restrict ourselves with these preconceived categories when nature shows us that there’s more to any force than we see at first glance?

Lesson #3: Inaction is an Action (But not Always in a Bad Way :-)

A third major lesson from Taoism is in the wisdom of knowing when to act. Lao Tzu (that mysterious scholar from earlier) had a key philosophy that someone’s actions should be effortless.

In other words, your actions shouldn’t be harder than necessary. Why exert yourself when not needed? Lao Tzu had his own term to describe it: Wu Wei

Wu Wei basically means ‘actionless/effortless action’

And we still keep this philosophy in our idioms today. Have you ever been told to ‘go with the flow?’

In Lao Tzu’s time, China had a major focus on politics. How should a wise emperor lead his (or her 😉) people? This was the question Taoism answered with its lessons of flow.

For those who practice not-doing,
everything will fall into place. — Tao Te Ching

Inaction wasn’t necessarily bad. It was fine to sit idly by if incessant meddling with affairs could actually be harmful. And this isn’t just a principle for emperors.

Lao Tzu believed that everyone could benefit from the principle of flow and inaction in their lives. To gain the skill to make even the hardest of tasks effortless.

And these days, psychologists are saying the same thing. Modern neuroscientists have defined ‘flow’ as an exact emotional state. If you’ve ever been 100% focused on the task at hand and forget all other worries, you’re flowing 😄

And flowing doesn’t require lots of concentration and focus. In fact, experiments show that some brain processes actually shut off during the flow state. It’s literally action through inaction.

And the best part is: people are 5x more productive and 4x more creative in their flow states! Mckinsey studied all the most successful business leaders and they all had higher flow than average.

Now, companies like Google are trying to maximise this flow in their employees by letting them work on whatever they want for 20% of their time. And Lao Tzu embraced these philosophies thousands of years before Google…

Now that’s impressive.

Taoism: The Birth of the Flow Revolution 🎂

By now, it’s clear that this document Lao Tzu left behind had a lot of important knowledge. So the lucky guard who got this final legacy took it upon himself to spread its knowledge.

Eventually, the text was so widely reproduced and followed that it started a religious revolution. But not like any religion that came before it.

There were no wars, no bloodshed, and no strict rules mandated by the religion. It focused on the individual, so it gave individuals the power to implement this way of life as they saw fit in their own lives.

There were no religious centres or rites, but instead people taking control of their flow and finding their balance. And that’s how the religion largely exists today as well.

That being said, there are more festivals around Taoism that celebrate these values today. And these new community gatherings are giving a new reach and impact to the religion. For one, the Taoists are taking on the role of environmental stewards and inviting leaders to join their festivals and embrace the eco flow! 🍃☮

Who could’ve expected that this legend that started in the Himalayan mountains thousands of years ago would still be alive today? Taoism is the inspirational story of a historical mystery unsolved that still shapes millions of people to find their balance and hopefully just flow ;-)

Key takeaways

  1. Nature is shaped by opposing forces struggling for balance. It doesn’t make sense to oppose this balance for particular outcomes.
  2. Paradoxes are natural to all things. Weak substances like water can weather away the strongest of rocks.
  3. Unnecessary action is worse than no action. Learning to flow effortlessly through actions is the ultimate skill.

Before you Go

Hey, I’m currently sitting in a chemistry class trying to find my inner atomic flow. If you liked this article, then please feel free to:

  • connect on Linkedin
  • check out some other work on my website (100% non-shady :-)
  • subscribe to my newsletter (because I’m really extra)

So I can convince my atoms to get on the same wavelength as me ;-)



Madhav Malhotra

Is helpful/friendly :-) Wants to solve neglected global problems. Linkedin: