Wu Wei


One of the things I admire most about all Asian cultures is their wonderful terms for things the English language can’t express. I fell in love with the Chinese term “Wu Wei” (pronounced “ooh way”) the moment I heard its meaning: “effortless action.” It’s exactly what’s needed for success in networking and interviewing, indeed, for your whole career.

Dr. Edward Slingerland, a professor of Asian studies at the University of British Columbia, has developed a whole theory of how to achieve this sort of social flow state, which he bases on Chinese texts from 300 BC. The advice given to aspiring politicians in these ancient scrolls is to become what you aspire to be, so much so that your actions require no effort. If you have to try to be kind, or obedient, or faithful, then you are not really those things. “You cannot try, but you also cannot not try.”

Achieving Wu Wei is the key to charisma and becoming what we term a “natural” speaker, networker, or interviewer. We admire people who make what they do look effortless, whether it’s a verbal, athletic or creative performance. Of course, there are very few true naturals in the universe; most experts put in thousands of hours of preparation and practice to appear effortless. Wu Wei is the difference between the action appearing effortless and actually being effortless.
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Effortless action is almost impossible to achieve if the trait is not already a part of your nature. That’s why we gravitate to activities and professions that we have a natural affinity for. The human brain is capable of mastering almost any task, given enough instruction and hours of practice and feedback. But we’ve all had that sinking feeling when you step up to perform next to or compete with a natural; they’re simply in a different league altogether.

Wu Wei, in Dr. Slingerland’s work, explains the paradox of how hard it is to simply “be yourself.” Nothing should be easier to do, but appearing natural and at ease in an interview is extraordinarily hard to do. Here are some ways to achieve it.

  • Practice not being attached to outcomes. (Another Zen concept, for what it’s worth.) Work on this until you truly believe that your intrinsic value, your worth as a human being, is not connected to the outcome of this meeting. When you feel desperate about the outcome, you’ll find it impossible to relax. Practice a mantra that convinces you that if this is the right opportunity, it will happen. The universe is conspiring on your behalf.
  • Focus on your true strengths; spend your time on how to highlight them. If possible, think about how your strengths compensate or cancel out a weakness. “I’m a quick learner and intensely curious about everything related to my job. Although I’ve never done X before, I’ve mastered challenging skills in the past quicker than anyone expected.” (Follow up with a great story that proves this.)
  • Finally, try to focus on the other person, not yourself. Self-consciousness is what causes most of your nervous panic. Dr. Lisa Firestone, writing for Psychology Today, describes our ‘critical inner voice’ as “a thought process that casually yet ruthlessly puts us down and sabotages our successes.” Work on quieting your mind and really focusing on the person you’re speaking to. You may find that you can calm down enough to enjoy the conversation. You may even relax enough to be you.

The Tao Tê Ching offers this wisdom:
The Sage is occupied with the unspoken
and acts without effort.
Teaching without verbosity,
producing without possessing,
creating without regard to result,
claiming nothing,
the Sage has nothing to lose.

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