16 ancient pieces of wisdom from Confucius to thrive in modern life

Along with Jesus, Mohammed, and the Buddha, Confucius has had an impact on human history that completely dwarfs most other historical figures.

This Chinese philosopher, who lived from 551 to 479 BCE, established the philosophy of Confucianism, which underpins Asian thought and society right up to the present day.

And despite being dead for the last 2500 years, many of Confucius’s teachings remain relevant today.

The world we live in couldn’t be much different from the world Confucius knew. But humans haven’t changed.

Check out some of the greatest teachings of this incredibly influential man below.

1) They must often change who would be constant and happiness or wisdom

Change is the only constant in the universe.

Everything changes, sooner or later. Therefore, to be happy, you need to get comfortable with change.

That means changing yourself. Changing your ideas, changing your opinions, and changing your behaviors as you learn more is the key to both happiness and wisdom.

2) It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop

Perseverance is everything. That was as true 2500 years ago as it is today.

Trying to achieve anything in this life can be difficult. And it’s easy to get discouraged when you see other people living the life you want while you are stuck on the first step.

Confucius teaches that what matters is not the speed of the journey, but the progress. Take it from a man who changed the world – all that matters is that you keep going.

3) Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves 

None of us get through life without being wronged by others – or at least thinking we have been.

And when that happens, it’s tempting to want to seek revenge.

But as Confucius points out, revenge has a way of backfiring on those who seek it. Before setting out to bring somebody else down, consider that you are also digging a grave for yourself.

This doesn’t have to be literal. Taking revenge on others doesn’t have to physically kill us to be harmful. Instead, it can kill the part of us that is capable of mercy, compassion, and forgiveness.

Either way, this stark warning from Confucius reminds us that revenge is as dangerous to those who seek it as those they are trying to revenge themselves upon.

4) Do not do to others what you would not want done to you

This is sometimes known as the Silver Rule, and is the basis of ethical systems throughout human history.

More conservative than the Golden Rule, which recommends actively doing to other people what you wish they would do to you, Confucius’s Silver Rule is nevertheless an excellent benchmark to judge whether your actions are moral or not.

It’s simple enough to teach to children, yet powerful enough to stay with us our entire lives.

Before taking any action that affects another person, ask yourself how you would feel if it was done to you. This will keep you from harming other people by your actions.

5) Respect yourself and others will respect you

This is so true.

It’s almost impossible to respect someone who doesn’t respect themselves. On the other hand, it’s hard not to respect someone with a healthy level of self-respect.

Confucius points out that if we want other people’s respect, we must first respect ourselves. And often, the best way to do that is to try as best we can to live up to our principles.

That will make you someone worthy of respect and help you to respect yourself. Once that happens, the respect of others will follow all by itself.

6) Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s own ignorance

There’s a psychological phenomenon known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.

This phenomenon shows that when people first start to learn about a new subject, they grossly overestimate how much they actually know.

Then, as they learn more, that belief in their own knowledge drops because they realize there is much more to know than they first thought.

We are all guilty of this. But Confucius’s teaching reminds us that the most important thing to learn in this life is that we can never know everything.

This is the antidote to arrogance and self-righteousness. No matter how much you think you know, there is always more to learn, so never stop learning.

7) Forget injuries. Never forget kindnesses

Easier said than done. But the ethical system of Confucius is built on the idea of forgiveness not only as a gift to the people we forgive, but as a method of growing ourselves.

When someone treats you badly, it’s easy to fixate on it. But for Confucius, that’s counterproductive.

Instead, we should do our best to forget when people do us wrong.

On the other hand, we should never forget when people treat us kindly.

Not only will this help you to remember the best people in your life. It will also change your view of the world.

Focusing on kindnesses and forgetting injuries will gradually teach you that the world is full of kindness. Wouldn’t you rather live in a world like that?

8) Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising every time we fall

doing great in life 16 ancient pieces of wisdom from Confucius to thrive in modern life

Another of Confucius’s teachings about perseverance, this is powerful motivation for anyone attempting something difficult.

Anything worth attempting in this life is difficult. That means failure is more or less guaranteed.

What matters most is not how many times you fall down, but how many times you can pick yourself up and try again.

9) When anger rises, think of the consequences

This is great advice for anyone.

Anger is a natural part of human life. But it’s rarely a good idea to indulge it.

Angry people focus on short-term solutions and doing what feels good in the moment. But often, those same actions can end up causing us more harm than the thing that made us angry in the first place.

When you find yourself getting angry with someone, take a few minutes to breathe and calm down. You’ll almost always see that the consequences of your anger are worse than what made you angry to begin with.

10) Success depends upon previous preparation

Sometimes, it seems like everywhere you look, you see overnight successes. But in reality, that’s very rarely true.

Whether it’s the athlete practicing for years or the artist who worked in obscurity for decades, any great achievement takes a lifetime of hard work.

If you want to be successful, you need to prepare yourself for success. That means taking your time and getting everything in order to achieve your goals.

11) Silence is a true friend who never betrays 

This might be even more true now than when Confucius first said it.

We live in a world of constant distraction that Confucius could never have imagined. And as the world gets louder, silence becomes even more important.

Spending time in silence allows you to examine your own thoughts and get to know yourself in a way you never can in the chaos of daily life.

That’s why silence is a true friend.

12) Think of tomorrow; the past cannot be mended

It’s easy to fixate on the past. But it can also be extremely psychologically damaging.

The past is what shaped you, but it doesn’t have to control you. Let go of what has happened, since you can’t change it, and focus instead on the future that you still have the power to change.

13) To be wealthy and honored in an unjust society is a disgrace

This is an interesting one.

Human societies are built on power, not virtue. And they tend to reward those who conform to their rules and expectations, not those who do the right thing.

As Confucius points out, an unjust society rewards unjust people.

Think of that next time you envy the latest billionaire.

14) Those who cannot forgive others break the bridge over which they themselves must pass

We are all fallible. We all make mistakes. Sooner or later, we will all need forgiveness.

If you are the type of person who doesn’t forgive others when they wrong you, you are setting yourself up for the same treatment in the future. A less forgiving world isn’t good for any of us.

Instead, practice forgiveness, knowing that sooner or later, it’s you who will be needing forgiveness from someone else.

15) Don’t complain about the snow on your neighbor’s roof when your own doorstep is unclean

In other words, get your own life in order before criticizing others.

You don’t have to be perfect to have an opinion on how other people live. But a little humility is never a bad thing.

Again, none of us are perfect. Keep that in mind next time you’re tempted to criticize somebody else’s flaws.

16) Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it

I firmly believe this.

The trouble is, humans are great at adapting. That means we get used to everything that surrounds us.

Look how bored people seem as they take a flight across the continent, something that would have been completely unimaginable just a couple of hundred years ago.

Find the wonder in the world you live in and appreciate the beauty that surrounds you. You’ll be a much happier person for it.

Picture of Ryan Frawley

Ryan Frawley

Ryan Frawley is a France-based writer with a passion for psychology, philosophy, science, and anything that attempts to answer life’s biggest questions.

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