Life Lessons from Water

Photo by Aaron Burden

In attempts to get up to pace with humanity’s lift-off in technological and civil advancements, human beings are enshrouding themselves in the cacophony of self-help books, productivity blogs, educational YouTube videos, and personal development podcasts.

Raymond Tang, who spoke on a TED stage last year, felt the same way. He thought the relentlessly quick-shifting world was too much for him to grapple and he was practically drowning in his own self-consciousness. Then, he started reading self-help books. But the more he got into this habit — the more books he read — the more anxious and restless he became.

“It was like feeding my mind with junk food and I was becoming mentally obese”

Then, out of pure serendipity, as he was looking through the self-help shelf in a bookstore, he came across a small book called Tao Te Ching. It was a 2600 year old manuscript about the ancient Chinese philosophy of the Tao and its virtues. “It was by far the thinnest and smallest book in the bookshelf”, he said. “It had only 81 pages, and each page had a poem”.

One particular page in that book changed his life.

An excerpt from the Tao Te Ching, Passage #8

He was so profoundly moved after reading the short verse that he admittedly started reciting and practicing its principles on a daily basis. After years of actualisation, here are 3 things Raymond learned from the virtues of water.


“Water always stays low”

Water provides nourishment for plants to grow, it sustains the ecosystem of a vast biodiversity inside it, and it serves the billions of human beings that depend their lives on it. Water does all this, without drawing much attention to itself. In a world that emphasises the values of knowing the answers to everything, water teaches us to be okay with saying “I don’t know, I want to learn more, and I need your help.”

Water teaches us to shift our focus from me, to you — to redirect the attention from yourself to the people around you. Rather than promoting the success and glory of yourself, it is more satisfying to promote the success and glory of others. That way, life and the world becomes more exciting.


“When water faces an obstacle, it simply flows around it”

It doesn’t get upset, it doesn’t complain, it doesn’t get angry. Water always finds a solution, without force, without conflict. Raymond’s longstanding issue with self-help books can also be explained by his wrongful approach of working against the environment around him rather than working in harmony with it.

Water makes you become more comfortable in your own skin. It lets you to focus only on things that you can control, and not on things that you cannot. That way, work becomes easier. Water alters the entire game plan, from the general concensus of achieving more success, to the philosophical concept of achieving more harmony.


“Water is open to change”

Based on temperature, water assumes three states. Based on the medium it’s in, it can embrace many shapes.

In the US, hackathon competitions are pretty commonplace. In these events, small groups are challenged to solve a business problem in a compressed timeframe. Surprisingly, Raymond noticed that the team that usually wins is not the one with the most experienced individuals, but the ones with members who are most open to learn and are willing to help each other navigate through tough circumstances.

In life, we are constantly put through changes. Some can be desirable, but some can also be unpleasant. Most of the time though, they are beyond our control. When a situation is framed this way, the only positive way around it is to change your mindset — and embrace change with open arms.

And just as a puny pebble can set off a ripple to start blooming into a large halo, we can too set off a ripple effect by a simple change in mindset.

Life is a raft adventure. It’s deluged with intrepid waters, extreme boulders, and precarious currents. It’s filled with unexpected obstacles at every twist and turn. The manned raft is violently shaken and pushed to its very limits, as if the water was trying to consume it. But with a subtle change in perspective, the raft is simply being embraced by the nature of the waters, swimming in a sea of tumultuous peace, perpetually flowing in harmony. The more like water the raft becomes, the less frustrating the ride will be.

Now, whenever faced with a tough situation, ask yourself, “What would water do?”



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Jonathan Adrian

Jonathan Adrian


Junior doctor, writer, photographer, and part-time social media strategist.