5 pieces of advice to have an Ideal life from Confucius

Have you realized that we’re so used to setting goals and objectives? We set New Year’s resolutions for ourselves; we have career goals and financial goals. Our employers manage us by setting objectives. When we meet these goals, life is great. When we can’t, we have stress. Perhaps it’s time we look at our lives with a different set of goals. 

confucius, chinese advice, career goal

Confucius gave important advice to the Chinese about milestones at life’s different stages. His advice is still relevant today. What are the most important milestones to be achieved at ages 30, 40, 50, and beyond? And what wisdom do we need at life’s different stages?

In his book “Lunyu” or “Analects”, Confucius summarized his life in a few phrases.  

“At 30, I established myself. At 40, I came to be free from doubts. At 50, I knew my destiny. At 60, I heard everything with docile ears. At 70, I followed my heart’s desires without transgressing what’s right.” 

Confucius’ words have shaped the ideal life that the Chinese have pursued for millennia. Let’s look at their meanings. 

“At 30, I established myself.”

In ancient China, 30 is considered the age of maturity, professionally, emotionally and perceptually. People at 30 had acquired skills and established their careers. They also had a family of their own. “Establishing myself” in Chinese is “er Li” which can also be translated as “standing firm.” So it also means that at 30, one has developed his own views and perspectives on the world and isn’t easily swayed by others.

 “At 40, I came to be free from doubts.”

Confucius believed that one should have no more confusion about life when one turns 40. People in their 40s are in their prime years and have developed mental strength and clarity.  They are no longer confused about who they are and what they should do in life. They are free from doubts. 

“At 50, I knew my destiny.”

At 50, you’ve lived over half of your life and experienced many ups and downs. Facing your achievements, as well as regrets and disappointments, you should accept them and have a realistic outlook about where you are going. In the United States, the age between 45 and 54 is the highest earning age group. So, at 50, you’ve reached the peak of your financial success, and your life ahead has been defined for you. And that’s what “knowing your destiny” means at a superficial level. 

confucius, life advice, career goals

When Confucius traveled through various states, Lord Ye of Chu asked his student Zilu, “What kind of person is Confucius?” Zilu found himself at a loss for words to describe his enigmatic teacher. He told Confucius this and his teacher said: “Why didn’t you just say: Our teacher is so determined to study that he forgets to eat. The joy of learning makes the most sorrowful matters disappear, and he doesn’t even realize that he is growing old and works as hard as a young man!”

“Knowing your destiny” isn’t about being passive in life. In Chinese, it can also be translated as “knowing the will of heaven.”  In China, before the CCP came, heaven was regarded as the divine order or law that determines human affairs. Chinese people believe that one’s life is pre-arranged by heaven before birth. One’s good fortune and bad luck are all the result of karmic relationships in previous lives.

“Knowing your destiny” means that one must accept and respect heaven’s arrangement, whether it’s good or bad, and work hard to fulfill the responsibility heaven has bestowed upon him. In the first half of one’s life, one works hard to establish himself in the physical world.  However, from 50 on, one should be more concerned with living his life according to the will of heaven. 

“At 60, I heard everything with docile ears.” 

People like to hear praise and not criticism. Praise and criticism can both stir up emotions in us. Confucius believed that as one age, one should grow to be more tolerant, open-minded, and less emotional.  “Hear everything with docile ears” means one hears everything without reacting. At 60, praise or criticism should make no difference to you. People in their 60s should accept the way of the world and be in harmony with their environment. 

“At 70, I followed my heart’s desires without transgressing what’s right.”

When quoting Confucius, most Chinese focus on the first half of the expression and say that one should be able to do anything he wants at 70. It sounds great that one is totally happy and free at age 70. But we shouldn’t ignore the second half.  Confucius said One can do anything his heart desires without overstepping the line or breaking the rule. It’s precisely the second half that matters and, therefore, the ultimate wisdom a person can acquire at an older age. It can only be achieved by being independent at 30, having no confusion at 40, knowing one’s destiny at 50, and accepting criticism well at 60.

This Confucian expression has become an essential part of Chinese conversations. When you ask a Chinese how old they are, they’ll say, “I’ve reached my “standing firm years” or “I’ve reached my “knowing my destiny years.”  

It should be noted that before Confucius laid out the goals for ages 30, 40, 50, and beyond, he also said, “I set my heart on learning at age 15”.  He is revered as the teacher of all teachers in China. His teachings emphasize the importance of moral development, self-discipline, respect, and etiquette. He is a diligent, life-long learner. 

I feel like I’m far from reaching any of these goals. I’m not established financially or professionally. I don’t always stand firm. And I certainly have doubts.  Are those signs of Lei’s immaturity?  Or perhaps her youthfulness, if we look from a positive perspective? 

Watch Lei’s full video here:

The Wisdom to Know – The Courage to Tell
The Wisdom to Know
– The Courage to Tell

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