Making use of inclinations

I’m reading a book on happiness and meditation which contains the following story.

In Chinese history, during the reign of Emperor Shun (who lived sometime around 2200 BCE), what was then known as China was plagued by frequent destructive floods along the Yellow River. The emperor ordered a nobleman called Gun to solve the problem. Gun’s strategy was to build a series of dikes and dams to block the flow of water. Given the technology available at the time and the massive scale of the problem, that strategy was probably bound to fail, and it did, spectacularly. After nine years of building dikes and dams, the strategy proved itself to be a dam-ed failure.

After Gun passed away, his son, Yu, took over the job. Yu had had nine years to observe his father’s work and figure out how it failed. As a result, Yu’s strategy was the reverse. Instead of trying to stop the water, he would work with it. He dredged the river and cleared its bottlenecks to allow it to flow more freely toward the ocean. Even more skillfully, Yu also built a system of irrigation canals to turn some of the formerly destructive floodwater into water for growing crops. Yu is remembered in Chinese history as Yu the Great.

The author used this story to illustrate how in meditation, forcing your mind to behave in a certain way doesn’t work: you can’t force yourself to be calm (this seems almost an oxymoron). If you instead create conditions for the right mental state to arise, thoughts and emotions come effortlessly.

This was an important insight for me in meditation, but I also see the same principle elsewhere. The management book I’ve seen most recommended — based on research over hundreds of thousands of people — suggested that a core principle of the best managers is to make use of the natural inclinations of employees. This is summarised as “Don’t waste time trying to put in what was left out. Try to draw out what was left in.”

Trigger-action plans1 also rely a lot on the same idea: it is much easier to train desired actions to occur on certain triggers than to exert forceful control (willpower).

There are definitely places where you *do* want to go against the natural inclination of a system (e.g. tragedy of the commons), but I think it’s a good guideline to follow in thinking about yourself: make good use of your inclinations.