If I asked you to guess what's the most popular course at Harvard, what would you say? Those bombarded by calls for more of us to learn to code might guess something technical like Intro to Computer Science. Practical minds might go with a basic course required by everyone like English Compensation, but I'm willing to bet that very few would come up with the right answer.

What is it? Chinese philosophy, according to a fascinating recent Guardian article.

"The mid-first millennium BC was a similarly turbulent age to our own," explain Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh, authors of the Guardian article as well as the book The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life. These interesting times drove great Chinese thinkers like Confucius, Mencius and Laozi to their most profound insights, they write.

But while historical turmoil has given rise to important wisdom around the world, these Chinese philosophers, the authors insist, are "unlike the philosophers we are more familiar with in the west." Why? They "didn't ask big questions. Theirs was an eminently pragmatic philosophy, based on deceptively small questions such as: 'How are you living your daily life?,'" Puett and Gross-Luh note. Unlike some of the thinkers that you might have encountered in a typical college philosophy class, China's greatest minds focused on the "mundane and doable."

That makes their advice particularly surprising -- and also particularly practical- and just might explain why Harvard students are flocking to study their work. Here are a few examples of their surprising advice. 

1. Stop trying to "find yourself."

Many in the west believe "it's important to look within and discover who you really are, your true self," write Puett and Gross-Luh. China's greatest philosophers would disagree. They "would be skeptical of the existence of a true self, especially one you can discover in the abstract."

Rather than assume each of us has one true self, these thinkers believed we are different selves in different situations -- and that's as it should be. "You don't behave the same way when speaking to your mother, say, as when dealing with a junior colleague, your dentist, or a close friend. Each of us is a complicated being bumping up against other complicated beings all day. Each encounter draws out different aspects," the authors explain.

Essentially, what you do is who you are. Happily, that means there are "numerous possibilities of what we can become."

2. Authenticity is overrated.

Authenticity is a popular business buzzword these days, but the greats of Chinese philosophy weren't particularly enamored of the idea. "The problem with authenticity, [Confucius would] say, is that it's not freeing, the way we believe it to be. Who is that authentic self you think you have discovered really? It's a snapshot of you at this one moment in time. If you stay true to that self and allow it to become your guide, it constrains you. It doesn't allow for the sort of growth you experience when you recognize that you are ever-changing," say Puett and Gross-Luh.

3. Skip the life plan.

"When you plan your life, you make decisions for a future self based on the person you are today not the one you will become," warn the authors. Instead of limiting your options by pinning down a life plan, Mencius would advise a course of action that many of today's productivity gurus could get behind -- just start and then adjust as you go. Small actions add up to big accomplishments.

"Rather than boxing ourselves in by committing to big decisions, the Mencian way would be to approach them through the small and doable. When you are contemplating a career change, say, or a break up or move, your decision will be easier if you try out new related experiences on a small scale. Pay attention to your responses to these experiences, because they will guide you in new directions," conclude Puett and Gross-Luh.

Intrigued? The book obviously offers a really deep dive into these philosophers' ideas, but the article also provides lots more surprising advice for the modern striver.

Published on: May 2, 2016