When word got around about the transformative effects of professor Michael Puett’s class at Harvard University, there physically wasn’t enough space to fit everyone in.
The next time the bespectacled 51-year-old took to the lectern, he was given the 1 000-seat Sanders Theatre – the largest venue on campus.
So what were the world’s brightest undergraduates clamouring to hear? Not quantum physics, economics or computer science, but the teachings of Chinese philosophers whose wisdom is 1 900 years older than the university itself.
Puett, whose Chinese philosophy course is now the third most popular at Harvard, promised the students that if they took this philosophy seriously, it would “change their lives”.
He was convinced that what the Chinese sages had to say about happiness and fulfilment was acutely relevant to modern concerns.
Given that the more than 2 300-year-old teachings he advocated were often counterintuitive to our 21st-century way of thinking, it was a big promise indeed.
“This generation of students has grown up being told that the key to fulfilment is to look within and find themselves, and then to try to be authentic to this true self, deciding on a career path that closely aligns with who they are,” says Puett. “But they sense that this isn’t right. They look at the world and the mess we’ve made and open to new ideas.”
One of those new ideas – which, of course, is actually very old – is that there is no such thing as a true self.
Puett cautions that “if we look within to try to figure out who we really are, we’ll be looking for ever. Chinese philosophers remind us that our personalities are messy and multifaceted.
“Our daily interactions consist of bumping up against other complicated people all day long. The ‘messy self’ approach leads to a new way of thinking about everything we do in a profoundly different way.”
Too much focus on the big questions – where am I going in life? Who am I really? – blinds us to more exciting possibilities.
“It keeps people from paying attention to the daily things that could invigorate and inspire them, out of which could come a truly exciting, fulfilling life,” says Puett.
It’s the seemingly inconsequential minutes of our day – holding the door open for someone, smiling at a stranger – that hold the key because they create a ripple effect that can change the way we feel.
Graduates of Puett’s class report changing their degree course from humanities to maths or vice versa once they realised they didn’t have to be confined just by what they were good at, but could pursue their interests, no matter how impractical they seemed.
They also tell of improvements in their relationships with friends and family.
If we embrace these teachings, then we too – like Puett’s students – can recognise that there is another path towards meaningful personal relations, a fulfilling career and a sense of true wellbeing.
We tend to think of real change as something big, profound and dramatic, but the most important lesson these Chinese philosophers can teach us is that great change doesn’t happen unless you begin with the everyday, with what you can do right now.
Here are a few tiny tweaks you can make to get on the road to changing yourself and your world in a very real way.
Dust off those candlesticks
You’ve probably got a drawer full of cloth napkins, pretty tablecloths and candlesticks that only see the light of day once or twice a year. But what if you treated a regular Monday night after a rough day at work as if it were a special day?
Confucius teaches us that by living your life as if it were different, it actually becomes different. A small, positive ritual such as an “as if” dinner can turn pretending into reality. Doing this every day (or as often as you can) sets the stage for the rest of the evening for you to feel elevated and rejuvenated.
Smile at a stranger
We’re often taught to be pleasant for politeness’s sake, but at the same time we are also told that we shouldn’t be fake. So what’s the answer? Smiling at a stranger reinforces an important Chinese philosophical lesson: each of us is influenced by the smallest things that those around us do.
Psychological research shows that even something as seemingly inconsequential as the frown on a stranger’s face as you’re walking down the street can make your day darker, whereas a smile can be contagious.
Small things can brighten another person’s day. The bonus is that you feel a warm glow when you do something nice for someone else too – a glow that the Chinese philosopher Mencius would have said is a little seed of goodness.
Stand up to greet your loved one when they come home
You might be busy making dinner or glued to the TV when your partner walks through the door at the end of the day and a cursory nod hello may be all they get. But standing up to acknowledge your loved one is a very small gesture that sends a different message: you’re not taking them for granted, you’re paying attention to their existence.
To quote Confucius again, you’re living “as if” you are not busy. Over time, your small change in behaviour creates a ritual between you and a new reality in which you have forged a better connection.
Stop taking personality tests
It’s a fun exercise to learn that you’re an introvert, an extrovert, or anything in between. But beware of taking any labels too seriously. All the Chinese philosophers would have been surprised by our modern-day penchant to diagnose our personalities: I’m a hothead, I fear intimacy, I’m a dreamer and so on.
Labels can be damaging because they drive our behaviour and become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“As a result, too many of us wake up one day feeling stuck inside a narrow definition of ourselves,” says Puett.
The Path: A New Way To Think About Everything by professor Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh will be published on April 7 by Viking and available on Loot.co.za for R275.