The Discussion Of The Confucius' Quotation
Confucius would not want you to choose your job. We often attribute obscure, proverbial wisdom to Confucius or other pre-imperial Chinese thinkers because of the fame and influence Confucius has had on the West. We are so familiar with the idea of Confucius as the famous Chinese philosopher, but less so with his actual teachings, that it is easy to be duped by a wise quote presented as one of the teacher’s own. One of the most famous of these misquotations is “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” In other words, if you merge your passions and your interests with your career, then your work will be rewarding and enjoyable. But when this quote is broken down, it becomes evident that a Confucian never offered this wisdom.
When analyzing this quote, we must first understand the context in which it was supposedly recorded. Confucius lived and taught in pre-imperial China, and most of his teachings were only written down by his followers years after his death. At this time, China was made up of feudal states with a stratified social order and a common people bound to their respective lords by a system of serfdom, as “The Book of Songs describes the obligations of farm laborers to their lord.” The king’s son would inherit the throne, the sons of the lords and dukes inherited their father’s titles, and the children of the peasant farmers and laborers inherited their families bindings of servitude. In this regard, “choosing” was not an easily conceivable idea. The notion of choosing one’s own path in life in this manner would not have even been conceivable to Confucius and his followers, making it extremely unlikely he would have ever given this advice to anyone.
Society was structured so that where you were born is where you would stay, both physically and in terms of your occupation in life. What we think of as jobs today did not exist in Confucius-era China. One could not find something they had an interest in, apply, and hope to get the position, and the average commoner did not have the agency to develop skills, hobbies, or passions with which they could turn into a career. If we consider a possibility in which there was ample opportunity for employment and people weren’t relegated to the trade or position of their families, be that farming, crafting, or land-owning, we would still have no reason to expect that a Confucian would have uttered this quote. Much of Confucian teachings center on the notion that society is organized by a hierarchy of roles, and it is not only important to recognize these roles but to embrace and fulfil them to the best of one’s ability.
An excerpt from the Analects highlights this line of thinking, “The lord acts as a lord, the minister as a minister, the father as a father, the son as the son;” Confucius thought that in order for society to become harmonious like the days of old, everyone must work to do their part. Therefore, it is unlikely that Confucius or any of his followers would advocate for this reckless idea of doing whatever it is one wants to do. Instead, Confucius would argue that it is the duty of everyone to perfect their given role in life. For the king that inherited his position of power, that may be striving to become the most benevolent and effective ruler he can be. For the lowly farmer, that very well may be doing his duty to his lord by farming until he no longer can and his sons must inherit the farm and fulfill their role in the system.
We can even go as far to look at the language used in this quote to explain why a Confucian would not have said “Choose a job you love, and you will never work a day in your life.” If we look at the word ‘love’ in its context here compared to how the term ‘love’ is used throughout the Analects, we can see a clear difference in their connotations. In the quote, the word ‘love’ is used in a lighthearted way, almost in the same way one would say “I love the summertime” or “I love reading.” These statements carry the feelings of joy and satisfaction. In other words, the quote is suggesting choosing a job that is fulfilling or brings you joy. This is one of the many connotations the word ‘love’ holds; there are numerous others, but when we think of the word ‘love’ we often think of strong emotional connections, deep commitments, and immense feelings of happiness.
When looking at the Analects, we can see that Confucius rarely ever used the word ‘love.’ Even when discussing matters of family and filial piety, Confucius never mentions the importance of loving one’s parents. Instead Confucius puts forth arguments such as, “In serving your parents, remonstrate slightly. If you see that they do not intend to follow [your advice], remain respectful and do not disobey. Toil and do not complain.” There is no mention of the word love in this excerpt or any of the other excerpts that mention one’s family and loved ones, giving way to the idea that Confucian thinkers regarded the idea of love differently than we do today.
When love is mentioned in the Analects however, it is done so in a different manner. Confucius said, “Transmitting and not creating, trusting and loving what is ancient[…].” In this excerpt, we get a glimpse of how the Confucians thought about love. We know that one of the main pillars of Confucian ideology is striving to achieve the societal harmony of the past. Therefore, it makes sense that Confucius talks about “what is ancient” in terms of love. The meaning here is one of reverence and respect, and that could very well be one of the main connotations for the idea of love in pre-imperial China. Based on the fact that the word love is rarely used throughout the Analects and other Confucian texts, and the ideas of what constitute love are different today than they were over 2500 years ago in china, we can safely assume that Confucius would not have used “love” so carefreely in a quote such as this.
Finally, in order to completely prove that this saying did not come from Confucius or one of his followers, we must analyze the latter half of the quote: “you will never have to work a day in your life.” It is simply impossible that a Confucian thinker would ever use those words in this context, or at the very least to convey the message of this quote. Confucians believe each day should be dedicated to self-cultivation and working to live according to the Way. The Analects are essentially an instruction manual for Confucius’ followers, and the texts his students went on to write only elaborate on the principles laid out by the Analects. There are lessons to be had for all aspects of life; “What I do not desire others to do to me, I do not desire to do to them,” gives insight on personal interactions, the texts on filial piety governs how one is to interact with their parents, and there are even excerpts about what makes for good governance on the part of lords and kings.
Thus, no Confucian writer nor Confucius himself would use the sort of phraseology that is used in the quote. On the contrary, a Confucian would say that in one regard or another, a person should always be working towards living by the Way. [5: 5. Ibid.] While it is fun to take inspiration from quotes such as “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life,” it is equally important to learn the truth about where we think these quotes come from. Confucius and his followers lived in a time when this quote simply would not have made sense. Society was far too structured for there to be the amount of freedom this quote suggests, the meanings associated with the words have evolved so much that the language of the quote would not register, and the Confucian ideals of constant self-cultivation and working to make society better conflict with the notion of never working again. As sad as it is to burst this bubble, Confucius never would have said this.
- Hansen, Valerie. The Open Empire: A History of China to 1800. Second edition. New York: Norton, 2015.
- Mair, Victor H., Nancy S. Steinhardt and Paul R. Goldin, eds. Hawai’i Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture. Honolulu: university of Hawai’i Press, 2005.