Practice not-doing and everything will fall into place. When nothing is done, Nothing is left undone.
– Lao Tzu, Tao-Te-Ching
When I first came across the idea of ‘not-doing’, or Wu-Wei in the Tao-Te-Ching, my immediate response was WTF…
How can you do, not-doing. It seemed upon initial reflection entirely paradoxical.
Not long after exploring this idea in the Tao-Te-Ching, I was listening to a podcast with Hugh Jackman (of Wolverine and The Greatest Showman fame) that helped provide clarity on the paradoxical concept of Wu Wei and the 3 levels of it’s meaning.
Hugh Jackman, Carl Lewis & the 85% Rule
Hugh Jackman in his interview with Tim Ferris shares the idea of the 85% rule:
If you tell someone to perform at 85%, they do it better than if you told them to give it 100%.
How does this work and make any sense? Hugh shares that this idea came from research that was conducted with the Olympic Champion sprinter Carl Lewis.
Carl Lewis competed in the 100m sprints, and when racing, he would consistently be the last out of the blocks and as a result at the 40m mark in the race would be in the last position.
The dominant point of view in 100m sprinting is that you win the 100m in the first 10-20m. Your ability to win is based 100% on how you start.
As a result, people couldn’t understand how Lewis could, therefore, come from behind (last place at the 40m mark)and blitz the field to win so comprehensively, so consistently. Carl’s success flew in the face of the prevailing wisdom and insights about successful sprinting.
After a year of studying Carl Lewis however, a researcher realised the key difference that was the key to Lewis’s success.
At the 40m mark, everyone else in the race started trying even harder and pushing themselves. This tightened them up, actually limiting their fluidity and their performance.
Carl Lewis, however, did nothing differently – his breathe, gait, body, all remained the same as they had during the first 40m. He was able to stay relaxed throughout the entire 100m, and this helped him excel.
This story that Hugh Jackman shared helped me understand the first Level of Wu Wei.
Level 1: Thinking Less and Being in the Zone
Hugh’s story reminded me of an experience in my life where I thought less about ‘doing’ and my performance was better.
When I was younger, my goal was to play soccer professionally and I was playing representative level.
During training, I’d play amazingly well, but for some reason, I could never replicate this form in the game on the weekend.
I’d often get anxious before the official games on the weekends because I wanted to play at my best. I’d come in tight and wired wanting to give 110% to make sure I played well and scored (I was a striker). I would be in my head, thinking about what I was doing.
Reflecting back now, I realise that this was in complete contrast to training where I would be incredibly loose and relaxed. I wasn’t actively trying to go all out and play at 100%. I was in a state of flow, where I wasn’t thinking about what I was doing.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but at training, I was practising ‘not-doing’. I was not actively trying to ‘do’, I was consciously thinking less, and rather just letting the action unfold naturally from my subconscious. When I did this, everything fell into place.
This is Level 1 of Wu Wei.
It’s where you let go and become one with the action itself. You are no longer consciously thinking, and ‘doing’, and yet, when you do this, nothing is left undone.
Unlocking this first level of Wu Wei, led me to the second level…
Level 2: Pausing and Not Confusing Action for Progress
Practising non-doing and everything will fall into place, implies that actually, doing nothing can result in better outcomes, than doing something.
Rewinding 6 years ago, and this is a statement I would never have believed.
I was knee-deep with my co-founder Yohan building an edutech start-up. We’d originally started the business as an online learning platform for Year 12 students that provided them with access to videos and quizzes to prepare for their exams, all for a low monthly subscription.
After 12 months despite great product usage, we weren’t seeing strong subscription growth, and we decided to pivot to build a learning platform for schools, corporates and universities.
We bought into the idea that action = progress. If we were proactively taking action, things could only improve and get better.
Fast forward 3 years, and despite lots of hard work, long hours, and sacrifice, we’d made very little progress in building a successful edutech company. Product usage remained low, revenue growth anaemic, and Yohan and I were burnt out. As Yohan and I sat in a park bench in Sydney reflecting on the journey, we realised something…
We should never have pivoted. If we’d instead paused, and done nothing in terms of pivoting, but continued to work on and build our Year 12 exam prep subscription product, we would’ve found ourselves in a very different position.
Either, the market for the subscription product would have developed (through sales to schools, which happened for other businesses who stayed focused), or we would’ve moved on to pursue different projects more aligned to our passions and skills.
“Don’t confuse motion and progress. A rocking horse keeps moving but doesn’t make any progress.”
– Alfred Armand Montapert
This was the exact mistake we made. If we’d practised not-doing, everything would have fallen into place.
This is Level 2 of Wu Wei.
Pausing and not confusing your motion for real action. Instead, by pausing, it enables things to either come to you, or for the natural course of things to fall into place.
Reflecting on this experience with the edutech start-up, helped me unlock Level 3 of Wu Wei…
Level 3: Acting from a Place of Being Authentically Who You Are
When I was in the final year of my Law degree at Sydney University, I realised I didn’t want to practice law. Instead, I realised that I absolutely loved working with young people, and this led me to start Art of Smart Education, where we help high school students answer the big question, “What am I going to do when I finish school, and how do I get there?”
In the final year of law school, the entire student cohort starts to obsess over graduate roles, and which law firm and it’s ‘tier’ you have received offers for.
When I was asked, I’d say that I wasn’t applying for any graduate legal roles. I was going to grow Art of Smart Education.
People would look at me strangely and I could see them thinking (sometimes out loud)…
“You’re dumping your law degree, to start a tutoring & mentoring company….What a waste….”
While at the time I didn’t think these comments got to me, a couple of years later after graduation and growing Art of Smart Education, I decided to start the aforementioned edutech with my co-founder Yohan.
At the time, I didn’t really understand why I was doing it (short of believing it was a killer idea that would be successful), but since then I’ve reflected and realised that I had a huge chip on my shoulder.
I didn’t feel like what I was doing with Art of Smart was enough. That I was enough.
I thought that by starting an edutech and running multiple businesses at one time, I would be more impressive and ‘special’. My ego was out of control (I just didn’t realise it).
Importantly, I wasn’t being authentic to who I am. I was trying to be something and someone else. And as a result, my leadership of the edutech start-up was a mess. I constantly struggled to define our vision for the company and product and this had big consequences. The business struggled, our team was dysfunctional, and I felt lost and was not enjoying what I was doing.
In 2017 I made a big decision to resign from CEO of the edutech start-up and return full time to lead Art of Smart Education. I’d come a complete circle.
It felt as if I’d re-discovered my mojo. I knew exactly where Art of Smart Education needed to go, who our customers are, and the difference we were seeking to make in the world.
I didn’t have to think about it – I knew, deep within me. No longer was I having to think and be something else.
I was able to be authentically myself, and making decisions and taking action from this place of being. I had clarity.
This is Level 3 of Wu Wei.
Not-doing is about being. You’re not in your head, thinking about what you should do. You are simply being yourself in the moment, and your actions are an expression of who you are. Nothing is done, and yet, nothing is left undone.
That’s how I feel about my work today at Art of Smart Education and it feels incredible.
What is your understanding of the art of doing ‘not-doing’ and Wu Wei?
I’d love to hear your experiences with Wu Wei, and any insights you have 🙂
Let me know in the comments 👇
Hey, I’m Rowan. I’m the CEO of Art of Smart Education and I’m on a mission to help 1,000,000 young Australians answer the big question, “What am I going to do with my life when I finish school & how do I get there?”