What can we learn from Adam Smith, Jane Jacobs and Lao Tzu?

If you’re making small talk at a party, there’s a good chance you could end up confounded if you ask someone what their job is. You might scratch your head, wondering, what exactly does a logistics supply manager do?

The reason behind these confusing job titles isn’t some new trend. It’s actually the result of job specialization – an occurrence that was first identified by the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher and economist Adam Smith.

In fact, much of what Smith observed those many years ago is still relevant today, but his insights into the benefits and potential dangers of job specialization are particularly noteworthy.

Smith recognized that societies no longer had one family in the community baking the bread, and another family building the houses and so on. Individuals were now specializing in one specific task, like bricklaying, and performing it for the whole community.

The important part of Smith’s observation, however, was that this new development had both ups and downs.

Smith was right when he predicted that nations with highly specialized workforces would be extremely efficient and become the richest in the world. But he also recognized the danger in this: many workers would feel like they’d become a cog in the machine and lose sight of how their individual contribution is meaningful.

Remarkably, Smith’s centuries-old insight continues to play out today. Modern economies are creating more wealth than ever before, while many find their jobs tedious, if not meaningless. A company could have 100,000 employees spread across several continents, each working on different parts of a project, with no understanding of how their efforts fit into the finished product.

This is why Smith has some sage advice for managers and CEOs: make sure your workers are well-informed and that they understand how their individual contribution is important to the overall success of the enterprise.

Smith was also a champion of capitalism, as long as the profits found their way back into important social programs.

By the eighteenth century, consumer capitalism was already coming under criticism for the amount of money and labor being spent on superficial things like luxury fur coats and high-end snuff boxes. Plenty of people had a problem reconciling these things alongside the poor people who were starving in the streets.

But Smith defended the capitalist system and reminded people that it could work for everyone as long as the surplus wealth was used for programs that offered social support to the most needy members of society. As Smith saw it, mink coats and silver-plated snuff boxes were all a part of how hospitals and schools got funded.

Smith also offered insight into how the system could be improved by emphasizing the benefits of meaningful products and beneficial services that help people, such as psychotherapy. This way, the nation’s prosperity – as well as its citizens’ mental well-being – are cared for.

There’s very little biographical information on Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher believed to have lived during the sixth century BC. Yet, despite this mystery, his ideas are still a major influence in the world today.

To get a quick idea of the kind of philosophy Lao Tzu taught, there’s a popular story that puts him, along with Confucius and the Buddha, at a vinegar tasting ceremony. Confucius, with his views of people being corrupt, found the vinegar sour; Buddha, who focused on the suffering in the world, found the vinegar bitter; but Lao Tzu believed it tasted sweet.

This is very much a reflection on Lao Tzu’s most famous work, Tao Te Ching, which taught people that life can indeed be sweet if you follow its natural flow. Like the surface of a body of water, life can seem chaotic but underneath there’s a beautiful world at harmony and peace. And to reach this state of natural, harmonious flow is to be at one with the Tao, or “the way of the world.”

This may seem like a very abstract concept, but one of the reasons Lao Tzu and Taoism continue to influence the world is that his instructions make it all very concrete.

Central to the Taoist philosophy is the understanding that a seemingly complex world can become simple when the mind is quiet. And when a simple, beautiful life is full of contemplation, we can achieve real wisdom. So let go of all your busy plans and appointments and instead take the time to actually experience the world.

Lao Tzu also teaches us that nature has its own rhythm and pace that we should follow rather than resist. When you follow the Tao, everything will come at its natural time, and there is no point trying to rush things.

Some good examples of this are the grieving process following the loss of a loved one. For many, this is considered a terrible time, so they try to get it over with as quickly as possible. In other instances, you may try to cut corners in the learning process or attempt to form a lasting new relationship overnight.

But unless you want a life full of stress and strain, you need to surrender to the rhythm of life and let these things happen in their own natural way – which takes exactly as long as it needs to, and not a minute less.

For Lao Tzu, the best way to attune yourself to this natural rhythm is to observe nature. So the next time you’re out and about, remind yourself not to rush through your day or your life. Take a moment to sit down and admire the beauty of the trees or the clouds in the sky.

One of the sharper minds to consider how cities could be more comfortable and enjoyable is that of Jane Jacobs.

Living in New York City during the 1950s and 60s, Jacobs looked at cities as if they were their own sensitive ecosystems. As such, she was vehemently opposed to the development plans of architect Edmund Bacon, who proposed building skyscrapers and choking the city with networks of highways. Bacon was mindful of creating functional neighborhoods, but Jacobs believed he’d also be making them lifeless and isolated.

So Jacobs championed the social aspects of the city. Like any thriving ecosystem, New York needed to have a healthy mixture of components, so she argued for streets that were also cultural and residential, not just commercial.

This meant that a healthy district would have three things: a place for people to work during the day, a restaurant to have lunch during the afternoon and a theatre to get entertainment at night. With all of these elements, there would be a healthy mixture of people bumping into each other and exchanging ideas, whether they’re at work, in the theatre or dining out.

An ecosystem needs this kind of cross-pollination if it’s going to stay healthy, especially if it’s a small, enclosed environment like the few square blocks of a New York neighborhood. This was the kind of environment city residents needed to keep them from feeling lonely and isolated, and it’s why Jacobs argued in favor of increased urban density.

Many city architects, including Le Corbusier, felt that cities needed more open spaces, with sprawling parks and wide boulevards. But Jacobs disagreed. Healthy city streets needed to be dense, varied and busy. The whole point of a city isn’t open space, but rather the ability to bump into exciting people and feed the powerful social instincts that humans have.

Critics might suggest that crowded cities are more dangerous, but Jacobs pointed out that, in dense neighborhoods, people tend to know one another better and look out for their neighbors. In a city of isolated skyscrapers, Jacobs believed that this important social capital would be lost.

The great thinkers of the past rarely become outdated or irrelevant. The wisdom they wrote down, be it decades or centuries ago, can still be used today to help us live better lives. From the Stoics, who can help us gain perspective and clarity in life, to Lao Tzu, who reminds us that life is sweet when you follow nature’s rhythm and take your time, there is much to learn when it comes to improving our quality of life. There’s a good reason these people, among many others, are still considered to be among humanity’s great thinkers.

So what can learn from this? Try to be humble and look at the stars.

The Stoics of ancient Greece were already well aware that humans tend to exaggerate the importance of their individual lives. In order to correct this imbalance of perspective, they encouraged people to regularly observe the planets and stars in the heavens. This celestial backdrop helps us understand that our worries and hopes might not be so significant in the grand scheme of things.

Check out my related post: How to achieve the different types of happiness?

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