Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the sheer distance between you and your goals? If so, the saying "a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step" can help you realize that you can start where you are with what you have.
This ancient Chinese proverb is profound in its simple explanation of how we can achieve great things. Let's take a deeper dive into this quote's meaning, history, and more.
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” is a Chinese proverb that originates from the Tao te Ching. The meaning of this saying is that even the most difficult and longest ventures have a specific starting point. Similarly, it implies that daunting tasks can typically be begun by doing something very simple.
“We all carry the seeds of greatness within us, but we need an image as a point of focus in order that they may sprout.”
This is a very useful proverb to use in your own life when you’re faced with a challenge or working towards a goal that feels impossible. The reality is that all great accomplishments and victories are comprised of many smaller, more simple steps.
It’s impressive how profound the messages are in this short maxim. From these eleven words, we can extract the following:
For example, let’s say that you wanted to own the most successful landscaping business in your city. This might seem like a lofty goal if you’ve never so much as mowed a lawn. However, you can create a plan for yourself that is made up of many small steps and milestones. With hard work, diligence, and focus, you’ll find that you make steady progress toward your goal over time.
This expression doesn’t just apply to tangible, concrete goals, though. You can also use it when working on your own personal growth.
“Assemble your life… action by action. And be satisfied if each one achieves its goal… No one can keep that from happening…Action by action.”
— Marcus Aurelius
Let’s say, for instance, that you’ve noticed that you constantly overthink things to the extent that it’s holding you back. When something is a deeply entrenched habit, you aren’t going to be able to break it overnight.
However, you might start by working on building self-awareness, so you become more conscious of your overthinking habit. From there, you might use specific techniques to escape overthinking, make decisions more quickly, and start taking action. As time goes on, you’ll find that you’ve traveled very far from your initial starting point of overthinking every little thing.
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” is found in Chapter 64 of the Tao te Ching, which is one of the fundamental texts for both religious and philosophical Taoism along with the Zhuangzi.
The author of this ancient text is regarded traditionally as Laozi. However, there has been much debate throughout history about the identity of the person or people that wrote and compiled this text. The Tao te Ching is sometimes referred to as the Laozi, particularly in Chinese sources, as ancient Chinese books were often referenced by the name of the author.
Laozi is considered to be the founder of both religious and philosophical Taoism and is a central figure in Chinese culture. Many Chinese religious movements have been profoundly influenced by the work of Laozi.
The traditional accounts of Laozi’s life state that he was born in the 6th century BC in the state of Chu. He worked for the Zhou court at Wangcheng as the royal archivist and even, on one occasion, met and impressed Confucius. It is said that he wrote the Tao te Ching before going off into the western wilderness.
In Chinese folk religions, Laozi is regarded as a god or a saint. During the Tang dynasty, he was worshipped as an imperial ancestor. There is much that is unknown about Laozi despite the fact that he is tremendously historically important.
Many scholars have questioned whether there ever was a historical Laozi at all. Whether or not the man himself ever really lived, there is no denying the tremendous influence that the Tao te Ching has had since it was written more than two thousand years ago.
Though we may never know the precise biography of Laozi or the author(s) of the Tao te Ching, there's no question about the impact of the text and Taoism as a whole on Chinese culture and the world at large.
Similar to Stoicism in some ways, Taoism is a philosophy that helps people understand how they can exist in harmony with the universe. The Tao (sometimes spelled "Dao") is a difficult-to-define concept that is sometimes understood to mean "the way of the universe."
Another primary idea in Taoism is the idea that there are balancing forces in the universe, which are known as yin and yang. These matching pairs (such as action and inaction, light and dark, and hot and cold) work in tandem to create a universal whole. These concepts, in part, illustrate the fact that nothing exists in a vacuum and everything is connected.
Taoism existed alongside Buddhism and Confucianism for many centuries until a number of major religions were banned in 1949.
Laozi’s Tao Te Ching is the most translated book in the entire world after the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita. There have been more than one hundred different translations into English alone, not to mention dozens of translations into French, German, Dutch, Italian, Latin, and more.
Written in Classical Chinese, the Tao te Ching is a notably difficult text to comprehend and translate. The notable twentieth-century scholar on modern Chinese religions, Holmes Welch, noted that the written Classical Chinese lacked the following:
There are also many grammatical particles missing in the text, which typically make it possible for comprehension and translation to be more precise. On top of that, many of the passages are deliberately ambiguous and vague.
To make things more complicated, there also aren’t any punctuation marks in Classical Chinese. As you might imagine, this makes it hard to determine with certainty the start and end of any given sentence.
Given all of these considerations, it’s worth looking at some of the different translations of this particular saying within its context in Chapter 64 of the Tao te Ching:
The giant pine tree
grows from a tiny sprout.
The journey of a thousand miles
starts from beneath your feet.
– Translated by Stephen Mitchell
A tree you can barely get your arms around grows from a tiny shoot
A nine-story tower begins as a heap of earth
A thousand mile journey begins under your feet.
– Translated by Michael LaFargue
A tree as big as a man’s embrace springs from a tiny sprout.
A tower nine stories high begins with a heap of earth.
A journey of a thousand leagues starts where your feet stand.
– Translated by Wu
A tree broader than a man's embrace grows from a tiny seedling.
The tallest tower starts from a clod of earth.
The longest journey begins with the first step.
– Translated by Han Hiong Tan
By closing the door, the entry is not possible,
A big tree was in its beginning a tiny offshoot,
Thus a great expedition starts with a little step.
– Translated by Sarbatoare
A tree that fills the arms' embrace is born from a downy shoot;
A terrace nine layers high starts from a basketful of earth;
An ascent of a hundred strides begins beneath one's foot.
– Translated by Victor H. Mair
A tower of nine levels
Starts from the dirt heap
A journey of a thousand miles
Begins beneath the feet
– Translated by Derek Linn
A massive tree grows from a little sprout.
A nine-story building rises from a clod of earth.
A thousand fathoms begin with a single step.
– Translated by Edward Brennan and Tao Huang
A tree that can fill the span of a man’s arms
Grows from a downy tip;
A terrace nine storey’s high
Rises from hodfuls of earth;
A journey of a thousand miles
Starts from beneath one’s feet.
– Translated by D.C. Lau
A tree as a big as a man’s embrace grows from a tiny shoot.
A tower of nine storeys begins with a heap of earth.
The journey of a thousand li starts from where one stands.
– Translated by Wing-tsit Chan
A tree so big that it takes both arms to surround starts out as the tiniest shoot;
A nine-story terrace rises up from a basket of dirt.
A high place one hundred, one thousand feet high begins from under your feet.
– Translated by Robert Henricks
A tree with a full span’s girth begins from a tiny sprout;
A nine-storied terrace begins with a clod of earth.
A journey of a thousand li begins at one’s feet.
– Translated by Yutang Lin
The most massive tree grows from a sprout;
The highest building rises from a pile of earth;
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a step.
– Translated by Thomas Cleary
As you can see, some of these passages use the word li in describing the length of the journey. The li is a traditional Chinese unit of distance and is also known as the Chinese mile. Precisely how far a li is has varied quite a bit over time. Generally, though, it used to be about one-third of an English mile and is now standardized as a half-kilometer.
There are a number of notable similarities between the Tao te Ching and the philosophy of Stoicism. These include the importance of virtue, the idea that fear is created in the mind and not by external events, and the reality that adversity helps you to grow.
“First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.”
Let's dig into some of the major overlaps between these two schools of thought.
In the Tao te Ching, the author expresses that the wise person is able to look reality squarely in the eye without trying to exert control over it.
The Master sees things as they are,
without trying to control them.
She lets them go their own way,
and resides at the center of the circle.
Stoicism similarly posits that we must understand and accept the things that are outside of our control. Beyond that, we can even strive to embrace the way that things happen, even if it seems like the universe has turned against us. Through amor fati, we can see the bigger picture and recognize that all things that happen are, if not good, at least necessary.
When paging through the Tao te Ching, you'll likely notice the similarity that both Taoism and Stoicism ask you to watch yourself carefully.
“Knowing others is intelligence;
knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
mastering yourself is true power.”
Both of these schools of thought ask us to focus on our own actions rather than attaching ourselves to specific outcomes. They ask us to overcome ourselves and conquer ourselves.
Both Stoicism and Taoism emphasize the importance of the collective good. At the same time, they approach achieving what is best for humanity through the improvement of each individual.
It's easy to look at the world and see that things could be better. It's easy to run around blaming just about everyone for the state of things. The truth is, though, that you can't change other people by telling them how they should be. All you can do is work to improve yourself, and perhaps then you'll find that other people are changing by the nature of your example.
Both Stoicism and Taoism propose that being a virtuous person means acting in accordance with nature.
“Water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive.
It flows in places men reject and so is like the Tao.
In dwelling, be close to the land.
In meditation, go deep in the heart.
In dealing with others, be gentle and kind.
In speech, be true.
In ruling, be just.
In business, be competent.
In action, watch the timing.
No fight: No blame.”
Even though Taoism and Stoicism both advocate for a return to nature of sorts, this doesn't mean that they were calling for people to run off into the woods to live as hermits. They both share the idea that it's possible for living in accordance with nature to coexist with life in society.
If we're not careful, it's easy to let what other people think of us control who we are and what we do. Instead of being directed by the opinions of others, we can turn inward and try to access our inner resources and personal purposes.
“When you are content to be simply yourself and don't compare or compete, everyone will respect you.”
Both Taoism and Stoicism point toward the necessity of not being driven by a desire for reputation, fame, or approval. In the above quote from the Tao te Ching, Laozi reminds us of the odd truth that the way actually to gain people's respect is to be content as yourself without the need for the approval of others.
“Your days are numbered. Use them to throw open the windows of your soul to the sun. If you do not, the sun will soon set, and you with it.”
Despite the fact that the Tao te Ching was written thousands of years ago, you'll find that the words of this text are surprisingly relevant to your own life. The timeless wisdom found in this book is something that you can return to over and over again in different seasons of your life.
For this reason, we included the Tao te Ching on our list of 21 books that will change the way you think. If you're ready to revolutionize your life with new ideas and knowledge, this list is a great jumping-off point.
“A man with outward courage dares to die; a man with inner courage dares to live.”
“Simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and thoughts, you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.”
“If you try to change it, you will ruin it. Try to hold it, and you will lose it.”
“To understand the limitation of things, desire them.”
“Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.”
“The truth is not always beautiful, nor beautiful words the truth.”
“If you understand others you are smart.
If you understand yourself you are illuminated.
If you overcome others you are powerful.
If you overcome yourself you have strength.
If you know how to be satisfied you are rich.
If you can act with vigor, you have a will.
If you don't lose your objectives you can be long-lasting.
If you die without loss, you are eternal.”
“The flame that burns Twice as bright burns half as long.”
“A leader is best
When people barely know he exists
Of a good leader, who talks little,
When his work is done, his aim fulfilled,
They will say, “We did this ourselves.”
“The wise man is one who, knows, what he does not know.”
“If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to. If you are not afraid of dying, there is nothing you cannot achieve.”
“The further one goes, the less one knows.”
“When there is no desire, all things are at peace.”
“Close your mouth,
block off your senses,
blunt your sharpness,
untie your knots,
soften your glare,
settle your dust.
This is the primal identity.”
“When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.”
“Trying to understand is like straining through muddy water. Have the patience to wait! Be still and allow the mud to settle.”
“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent upon arriving.
A good artist lets his intuition lead him wherever it wants.
A good scientist has freed himself of concepts and keeps his mind open to what is.”
“What is a good man but a bad man's teacher?
What is a bad man but a good man's job?
If you don't understand this, you will get lost,
however intelligent you are.
It is the great secret.”
“Success is as dangerous as failure.
Hope is as hollow as fear.”
“True words aren't eloquent;
eloquent words aren't true.
Wise men don't need to prove their point;
men who need to prove their point aren't wise.”
“The Master has no possessions.
The more he does for others,
the happier he is.
The more he gives to others,
the wealthier he is.”
“My teachings are older than the world.
How can you grasp their meaning?
If you want to know me,
Look inside your heart.”
“Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill. Keep sharpening your knife and it will blunt.”
“He who stands on tiptoe doesn't stand firm.
He who rushes ahead doesn't go far.
He who tries to shine dims his own light.
He who defines himself can't know who he really is.
He who has power over others can't empower himself.
He who clings to his work will create nothing that endures.
If you want to accord with the Tao, just do your job, then let go.”
“To bear and not to own; to act and not lay claim; to do the work and let it go: for just letting it go is what makes it stay.”
“Not-knowing is true knowledge.
Presuming to know is a disease.
First realize that you are sick;
then you can move toward health.”
“A great nation is like a great man:
When he makes a mistake, he realizes it.
Having realized it, he admits it.
Having admitted it, he corrects it.
He considers those who point out his faults
as his most benevolent teachers.
He thinks of his enemy
as the shadow that he himself casts.”
“Failure is an opportunity.
If you blame someone else,
there is no end to the blame.
Therefore the Master
fulfills her own obligations
and corrects her own mistakes.
She does what she needs to do
and demands nothing of others.”
“If good happens, good; if bad happens, good. ”
“The heart that gives, gathers.”
“The road you can talk about is not the road you can walk on.”
“True perfection seems imperfect,
yet it is perfectly itself.
True fullness seems empty,
yet it is fully present.
True straightness seems crooked.
True wisdom seems foolish.
True art seems artless.”
“Nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water. Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible, nothing can surpass it.
The soft overcomes the hard; the gentle overcomes the rigid. Everyone knows that is true, but few can put it into practice.”
While "a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step" is a succinct and powerful way to describe the fact that even large undertakings start with small tasks, many other thinkers throughout history have discussed the same phenomenon.
“Now is the time to get serious about living your ideals... How long can you afford to put off who you really want to be? Your nobler self cannot wait any longer.”
Let's look at a few other quotes from people about starting where you are and working toward your goals.
“It’s not that we have little time, but more that we waste a good deal of it.”
“Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.”
– Seneca the Younger
“Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.”
– Vincent Van Gogh
“Don't wait. The time will never be just right.”
– Napoleon Hill
“It is better to take many small steps in the right direction than to make a great leap forward only to stumble backward.”
– Old Chinese Proverb
“In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”
– Theodore Roosevelt
“Be not afraid of growing slowly, be afraid only of standing still.”
– Chinese Proverb
“You don't have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant.”
– Robert Louis Stevenson
“The man who removes a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.”
“The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex, overwhelming tasks into small, manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.”
“Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out.”
– Robert Collier
“The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing.”
– Walt Disney
"All big things come from small beginnings.The seed of every habit is a single, tiny decision. But as that decision is repeated, a habit sprouts and grows stronger. Roots entrench themselves and branches grow. The task of breaking a bad habit is like uprooting a powerful oak within us. And the task of building a good habit is like cultivating a delicate flower one day at a time.”
– James Clear
"Do what you can, with what you've got, where you are."
– Squire Bill Widener
This quote from the Tao te Ching is something that you can return to over and over again.
If you are struggling to find the motivation to work toward a goal, you can remind yourself that even the longest journeys consist of small steps and begin where a person is standing.
If you feel like the obstacles in front of you are too much for you to overcome, you can find some solace in the reality that all giant projects can be broken down into smaller, manageable tasks.
You can apply this proverb to your professional life and to your personal life. It is just as useful when you want to write a novel as it is when you want to quit drinking. You'll find it just as powerful when you want to climb a literal mountain as when you want to actively work to overcome anxiety and depression.
It's important to remember that, in life, good things take time. Becoming the person you want to be isn't going to happen every night. Work on making progress every day, and you'll be surprised where you find yourself in just a few months' time.
Are you searching for more insight and inspiration to help you live a better life? Make sure you check out our Stoic Quotes blog.
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