We are usually told that, to achieve anything of value – to become successful or wealthy – we need to work hard. If you want to build muscle, you’ve got to work out, right? If you want to pass an exam, don’t you need to study hard? If you spend all term watching TV you’re going to fail your exams! We are so used to being told this kind of thing that we tend to believe it without really thinking, But look around at the evidence. Plenty of people work hard all their lives and get nowhere; others seem to attract success. Raw effort is not the key to success. They key is elsewhere.

There is a natural grain to everything

Cutting wood is an art form. You need the right tools – a sharp axe. But, just as importantly, you need the skill to cut along the wood’s natural grain. If you line the axe up along the grain and strike at just the right point, the wood will fall apart easily, but if you just hack away, chopping at right angles to the grain, you’ll end up with a blunt axe, sore arms, and a badly cut piece of wood.

Like the wood, all things in life have a natural grain to them; things happen in a certain way. Organizations have a certain culture. People have certain ways of thinking and doing things. It may not be the way we like, but it is what it is. As King Canute showed to his courtiers, we cannot stop the tide from coming in; we can try, but it will only carry us away. But to follow the natural and inherent structure of things is the key to achieving one’s goals. Cutting wood, like everything in life, can be quite effortless, so long as it is done properly.

The Taoist concept of ‘Wu Wei’ comes to mind. Literally translated from the Chinese, it means something like ‘effortless action’ or ‘doing without doing.’ At first, it doesn’t seem to make sense. But think of water, an often used analogy – it has the power to carve out deep valleys through the landscape, but it does so not by the application of effort, but by following the natural course of the land, always seeking the low point and taking the path of least resistance. Does grass make an effort to grow? It takes energy and it takes time, but it hardly takes effort. Planets move around the sun, but they do it naturally and without effort.

Going with the flow

You can have anything you choose and you don’t need to sweat, blood and tears to get it. There is a natural and easy way to get there. Like water, gentle persistence, following the natural course and seeking to avoid resistance, will lead to success. We need to be observant and alert, noticing which way the wind is blowing. Then we can set sail and the wind will carry us along. Where is the effort in that?