Motivation and Inspiration

10 Chinese Proverbs That Will Improve Your Road to Success

This article provides 10 ancient proverbs that are still relevant today and can be used to help keep you on track for success in your career.

It was originally written by Tom Powers, during our time together on VictoryCoaches–right when I was at the cusp of quitting my standard job and heading off to do something big. Whether you’re on the cusp or fully deep in the process of making massive changes in your life, you need constant motivation. Motivation to keep your dreams from fading. Motivation to keep you from listening to naysayers. Motivation to push you through failure, challenges, and hard work.

10 Chinese Proverbs For Career Success

These Chinese proverbs have truly passed the test of time, lasting thousands of years. Some are so applicable to modern life, they might as have been written yesterday. While I am sure they are more impactful when read in their original language, they are still pretty darn good in their English form.

Below, we provide our take on the meaning and value of ten of our favorite Chinese proverbs.  Enjoy and hopefully they fuel your motivation.


1. “Teachers open the door, you enter by yourself”

What it means: You may have heard this referred to as “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t force it to drink”. Basically, you can’t force somebody to do or be something if they don’t want to. In the end, it takes their decision and will to make it happen.
How it can make you successful: This is relevant when it comes to managing and motivating employees and will keep you from losing sleep or being overly aggressive when someone doesn’t do something you had hoped they would
How you can practice it: Take the time to build a relationship with your team and understand what they are all about. Don’t have the unrealistic expectation that they will do everything you want them to.
Relevant reading:

2. “Dig the well before you are thirsty”

What it means: Always plan for the worst even when things are going well because once the worst hits, you won’t have time to plan it then. A related quote from Sun Tzu is “Every battle is won before it’s ever fought.”
How it can make you successful: Planning is an essential ingredient to success. Often times the best time to shine or prove your worth is being the person is best prepared for an escalation/disaster.
How you can practice it: Spend at least a quarter of your day planning. Whether it be for an important meeting later in the week, a venture that could define your quarter, or a team project that will require actions of key stakeholders, you should always be known as the guy/gal who is well prepared. Nobody likes to waste their time on a meeting that doesn’t have an agenda! Use your free time wisely.
Relevant reading: Our article 12 Productive Ways to Spend Your Free Time

3. “A small hole not mended in time will become a big hole much more difficult to mend”

What it means: When you find a defect or issue, the later you find, fix, or deal with it, the more costly and inefficient the solution will be. This is what the “cost of quality” is all about.
How it can make you successful: If you are in the habit of finding and fixing issues very early, you will find that you encounter far less “disasters” than those who don’t. The fewer disasters you have, the more time you can spend on positive contributions and the better your chance of success will be.
How you can practice it: Practicing #2 (good planning) is a good way to prevent or catch problems early. Aside from that, you should be ready make resolution of an issue a priority as soon as you find it, as uncomfortable as that may be. Be prepared to communicate this to stakeholders and leadership as well.
Relevant reading:

4. “When the wind of change blows, some build walls, while others build windmills”

What it means: More successful people see change as an opportunity, less successful see it as an obstacle.
How it can make you successful: Being the first to take advantage of change in landscape gives you a competitive advantage over your competition. The open-minded bird has a better chance at the worm.
How you can practice it: Embrace change, know that it’s inevitable and the source of all future success. When you find you or your work mates start to “hem and haw” about how much better things used to be, you should immediately shut up, take time to understand why things have changed, and try to see the opportunity in it.
Relevant reading:

5. “Man’s schemes are inferior to those made by heaven”

What it means: You may have also heard the saying that “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry”. It’s important to understand that no matter how great you are at planning (#2 on this list), there is sometimes nothing you can do to stop failure. Failure is a part of success.
How it can make you successful: The sooner you understand and accept that something has failed, the sooner you can get on track to fixing your failure or moving to a venture that has a better shot at success. As we learn in Gladwell’s “Outliers”, oftentimes great successes occur, at least partially, by chance. Understanding this can improve your recovery time from failure.
How you can practice it: When it becomes obvious that something has failed, detach yourself from the activity/project and move on. Clinging to something that has no shot at succeeding is a costly waste of time.
Relevant reading:

6. “The spectators see more of the game than the players”

What it means: This is a very important lesson on perspective. Those who are neutral or have distance from an activity can often see or provide things that those close to it cannot. There is value in seeking these “foreign” opinions.
How it can make you successful: You may find mistakes that you missed, or opportunities that you are impossible for you to see.  You will lose your tunnel vision and keep your own vision more well-rounded.
How you can practice it: Form or join a mastermind group. If you can’t do this, make sure you respect and accept advice from those who dispense it to you. Seek an outsider’s opinion early and often. They have a perspective or insight that is impossible for you to know at that moment. If you go off of what you see and know yourself, you will miss a lot.
Relevant reading: Our posts:

7.  “Good medicine tastes bitter”

What it means: Success does not come easy and will most definitely involve some pain or “bitterness” to get there.  You may have heard the saying “no pain no gain”.
How it can make you successful: Expecting hardship will help you deal with it more readily. The better you deal with it the more you will be able to handle. The more you handle, the more success you can bring your way.
How you can practice it: Embrace the grind. Take pride in working harder than others. Some of the best winners in sports consider their love of the grind as their greatest competitive advantage. Additionally, as counterintuitive as it sounds, working smarter can help you achieve a “more productive grind” than your competitors.
Relevant reading: Our post:

8.  “It is better to travel ten thousand miles than to read ten thousand books”

What it means: You can learn far more from experience than you ever did studying the subject. There is nothing like on the job learning.
How it can make you successful: Not only will experience in an actual field make you better than someone who merely studied it, most decision makers will value it more too.
How you can practice it: Take on extra projects that expose you to functions you have experience with. Go out of your own comfort zone regularly. Never stay comfortable for too long or you will reach your own ceiling very quickly.
Relevant viewing:

9. “Three monks have no water to drink”

What it means: A project is bound for failure when there are too many people trying to lead it. You may have also heard this as “too many cooks in the kitchen”.
How it can make you successful: Understanding when to take a step back or communicate to someone else that they need to do so will significantly increase the probability for success on any project.
How you can practice it: Learn to be humble and swallow your pride. You don’t always need to be the top dog and, in fact, you shouldn’t always want to be.
Relevant reading: Our post: Ask These 6 People to Mentor You

10. “A bad workman always blames his tools”

What it means: Making up excuses and placing blame is a sign of a poor performer.
How it can make you successful: You are more likely to impress and influence peers and superiors when you hold yourself accountable (or forgive those who are) instead of placing blame.
How you can practice it: When something fails, don’t be afraid to step forward and hold yourself accountable for that failure. It’s a unique opportunity to prove your sincerity and strengthen the trust in your word.
Relevant reading:

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