Lao-Tzu #63: Take care of difficult problems while they are still easy; Do easy things before they become too hard.



Act by not acting;

do by not doing.

Enjoy the plain and simple.

Find that greatness in the small.

Take care of difficult problems

while they are still easy;

Do easy things before they become too hard.


Difficult problems are best solved while they are easy.

Great projects are best started while they are small.

The Master never takes on more than she can handle,

which means that she leaves nothing undone.


When an affirmation is given too lightly,

keep your eyes open for trouble ahead.

When something seems too easy,

difficulty is hiding in the details.

The master expects great difficulty,

so the task is always easier than planned.


Tao Te Ching

By Lao-Tzu

A translation for the public domain by j.h.mcdonald, 1996




Taoism is intended to be a practical philosophy — one that you can apply in your everyday life. Therefore, in reading the main book of Taoism, Tao Te Ching, written by Lao Tzu (circa 604 B.C.E.), you can ask yourself, “What does this mean to me? How can I get in touch with Nature and achieve happiness?”

Let’s take a look at section 63 of the Tao Te Ching:

Act without action.

Do without ado.

Taste without tasting.

Whether it is big or small, many or few, repay hatred with virtue.

Prepare for the difficult while it is still easy.

Deal with the big while it is still small.

Difficult undertakings have always started with what is easy,

And great undertakings have always started with what is small.

Therefore the sage never strives for the great,

And thereby the great is achieved.

He who makes rash promises surely lacks faith.

He who takes things too easily will surely encounter much difficulty.

For this reason the sage regards things as difficult,

And therefore he encounters no difficulty.

Note: From The Way of Lao Tzu, translated by Wing-tsit Chan.


Here we find advice about great undertakings. Since many readers of this book will have as their current great undertaking getting a college diploma — to be followed by the great undertaking of getting and keeping a job — let’s look at how two students approach studying. One student is a fool, and the other student is a Taoist.

The fool comes late to class — if he even attends class — seldom takes notes, and does not keep up with the reading. When the fool is assigned a 20-page term paper due at the end of the quarter, he says to himself or herself, “Hey, that’s a couple of months away! I’ve got lots of time to write that paper. So I’m going to have fun now, and I’ll write the paper later.” (This is the fool’s rash promise to himself or herself.)

Time flies by, and suddenly it’s finals week! The fool suddenly realizes that he or she hasn’t started the paper and he has a D- in the class so far. The fool asks the professor for an incomplete, but the professor — who takes attendance and knows the student has been blowing off the class — declines. Now the fool has to study for his or her finals and write a 20-page term paper at the same time.

All teachers, unfortunately, have known fools. Because of the fools, teachers take attendance in an attempt to force the fool — for his or her own good — to attend class. Teachers also are aware that at the end of the quarter or semester the fool will end up working harder than anyone else in the class — and learn the least from their hard work.

In his book Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis writes,

Teachers will tell you that the laziest boy in the class is the one who works hardest in the end. They mean this. If you give two boys, say, a proposition in geometry to do, the one who is prepared to take trouble will try to understand it. The lazy boy will try to learn it by heart because, for the moment, that needs less effort. But six months later, when they are preparing for an exam, that lazy boy is doing hours and hours of miserable drudgery over things the other boy understands, and positively enjoys, in a few minutes. Laziness means more work in the long run.

The Taoist student, in contrast to the fool, attends every class, takes good notes, and keeps up with the reading. After all, the Taoist student realizes that graduating can require a great effort. When the Taoist student hears about the 20-page term paper, she immediately begins work on the paper.

However, he or she does not try to write the entire paper in a few days — the way the fool is forced to. Instead, the Taoist student first finds a topic that he or she is interested in and that the teacher will accept as the topic for his or her term paper. (The fool has to start researching the first topic that comes to his mind, even if it bores him or her — as it probably will.) Then the Taoist student breaks the process down into small steps that anyone can do. Week by week, he or she researches and writes her paper, learning about an interesting topic in the process and ensuring himself or herself a good grade as well.

When the fool is desperately trying to come up with a topic to research, the Taoist student is finishing the proofreading of his or her paper.

That is the way that Taoists approach great undertakings. The undertaking appears overwhelming, but if you work on it little by little, the task gets done.

According to Annie Dillard, author of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, “You know when you think about writing a book, you think it is overwhelming. But, actually, you break it down into tiny little tasks any moron can do.”

Of course, we all know of students who get good grades without learning anything. Sometimes they cheat. Does this mean the Taoist student is a fool?

No. One purpose of college is to acquire job skills. Good grades can help you get your first job, but good skills are what will keep you from being fired. One of my correspondence students in philosophy wrote me about a computer-programming course that she and a friend had taken. The course was difficult, and my student was having a hard time. The final project was to do some computer programming — everyone in the class had to do the same project.

Guess what? A computer programming whiz in the class finished the programming project early and offered to give a copy of it to any other student in the class who wanted it. My student said, No, and received an F in the class. She had to take the class over. My student’s friend said, Yes, and received an A in the class.

Later, both students got jobs. The friend who had cheated and received an A was fired because her boss quickly discovered that she didn’t know how to program a computer. My student who had received an F and had to take the class over kept her job — in fact, she made a copy of her paycheck and mailed it to the friend who cheated!

This doesn’t mean that the Taoist student is a grind who never enjoys life. Taoists probably enjoy life more than anyone else. They do the work for the day, then go out and have fun. In fact, they enjoy their fun better than other people because their work for the day is done. In addition, they enjoy the process of doing their work. Taoist students tend to enjoy their classes because they understand what the professor is talking about — they’ve kept up with the work and so the professor does not appear to be speaking in a foreign language. However, if a Taoist student finds himself or herself not enjoying his major, he will change majors.

Taoists believe that at one time Humankind lived in harmony with Nature, but that since then Humankind has grown away from Nature, resulting in many problems. For example, in the United States today is an epidemic of obesity. Department stores are beginning to carry shirts in XXL and XXXL sizes because people can’t squeeze their excess flesh into XL shirts anymore.

Why is this happening? One answer is the proliferation of fast food restaurants, which serve fatty hamburgers and greasy french fries. (A TV commercial for low-calorie food or exercise equipment will probably be sandwiched between two TV commercials for fast food.) One hundred years ago, Americans ate mostly grains, fruits, and vegetables. Today the emphasis is on animal fat. For example, take Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy’s. He ate at Wendy’s all the time — just look at what it did to his midsection. (Wendy’s TV commercials that showed Dave’s big belly do have truth in advertising.)

To lose weight, remember the laws of Nature. You know that more food and less exercise means weight gain, so if you want to lose weight, try less food and more exercise. (And if you think you can gobble mass quantities of pizza and drink mass quantities of beer and not gain weight, weigh yourself now and weigh yourself when you graduate — the fiendish laughter you will hear in the distance will be mine.)

A true Taoist has an interesting way of dealing with obesity. He or she never becomes obese in the first place.

Read the Tao Te Ching and find out what it has to say to you.

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