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Wisdom Wednesday #6: Confucius's Tripartite Perspective on Learning and Wisdom

Welcome Back!

Welcome back to "Wisdom Wednesdays," where each week (or so), I dive into the depths of ancient wisdom to discover timeless insights that can help guide us today.

I've heard from readers that you love the wisdom and challenges but hate the long length of some of the posts. So, going forward, I'll be trying to get to the gist of things even faster to provide you with more wisdom and challenges in less time.

A few weeks back, we explored the Stoic practice of the "view from above," examining how taking a broader perspective can transform our understanding of life's challenges and make us feel more connected. I challenged you to zoom out during stressful moments during your week to gain a more balanced perspective. How did considering your place in space, time, or humanity work for you?

This Week's Wisdom

Today, we head back East and turn our attention to the teachings of Confucius, a foundational figure in Chinese philosophy. When it comes to the cultivation of wisdom, he wrote that:

"By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest." - Kongzi

About the Author

Confucius, or Kongzi, lived from 551 to 479 BCE in the Lu state of China (present-day Shandong Province). He was a philosopher, educator, and political thinker whose teachings have profoundly influenced East Asian life and thought.

In Confucius’s time, China was divided into warring states, with rulers often disregarding moral principles for power. Confucius sought to address this chaos by turning to the past, advocating for a return to a golden age of harmony and righteousness. His teachings offered a way to cultivate personal virtue and ethical governance, laying the groundwork for societal peace and stability. Confucianism, as his philosophy came to be known, emphasizes moral integrity, familial duty, social harmony, and the pursuit of knowledge.

Impact of the Idea Over Time

Confucius's methods for gaining wisdom have echoed through millennia, influencing not only individual approaches to learning but also education and social ethics across East Asia.

His emphasis on reflection, imitation of moral exemplars, and learning from experience has shaped educational and moral thinking, stressing the importance of a well-rounded approach to learning and development.

Leonardo Draws on Confucian Wisdom

An exemplary person who embodies Confucius's tripartite path to learning wisdom—through reflection, imitation, and experience—is Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo, often celebrated as the archetype of the Renaissance Man, mastered diverse fields such as art, science, engineering, anatomy, and geology through these three methods.


Leonardo's notebooks are a testament to his deep reflective practice. They contain not just sketches and scientific observations but also personal musings, questions, and hypotheses about the nature of the world. This introspection allowed him to develop ideas far ahead of his time, such as concepts for flying machines centuries before human flight became a reality.


In his early years, Leonardo honed his artistic skills under the tutelage of the renowned artist Andrea del Verrocchio in Florence. This period of apprenticeship was crucial, as Leonardo learned by imitating the master's work, absorbing not just the techniques but also the discipline required to excel in the arts. This practice of imitation laid the groundwork for his later innovations in painting, including techniques like sfumato and chiaroscuro.


Leonardo's insatiable curiosity drove him to learn directly from the world. He dissected human corpses to understand anatomy, studied the flight patterns of birds to design flying machines, and observed water flow to inform his engineering projects. His hands-on experiments and observations across various disciplines contributed significantly to his unparalleled understanding of both the human body and the natural world.

Leonardo da Vinci's approach to learning encapsulates the essence of Confucius's advice. By integrating reflection, imitation, and experience, he not only advanced his knowledge and skills across multiple domains but also left a legacy that continues to inspire curiosity, innovation, and interdisciplinary learning to this day.

Personal Relevance

Reflecting on Confucius’s words has encouraged me to embrace a more holistic view of learning and growth. An introvert by nature, I tend to naturally rely on reflection to make sense of things. However, over reliance on reflection (i.e., over-thinking) has sometimes prevented me from taking the risks required to learn from experience or reach out to others from whom I could learn a ton. This year, one of my goals has been to think less and try more—hence this series! There's nothing like writing and receiving feedback (positive and negative) from others to promote learning and growth.

This Week's Challenge

This week, I invite you to apply Confucius’s methods in your pursuit of wisdom.

  1. Learning from Reflection:

    1. Reflect on a recent experience by applying the U.S. Army's After-Action Review process. After completing a task or goal (or not), ask yourself:

      1. What did I set out to do?

      2. What actually happened?

      3. Why the difference?

      4. What now? Next time, what might I:

        1. Continue doing?

        2. Start or stop doing?

        3. Do differently?

  2. Learning from Models:

    1. Identify a person you admire and might learn from. Ask yourself:

      1. What qualities about this person do I like? How can I emulate them?

      2. What knowledge or skills do they possess that I'd like to develop? Would they be willing to mentor me on this?

      3. What can I learn from their example? How and when will I apply it?

  3. Learning from Experience:

    1. Pick a small experiment you'd like to run in one domain of your life (e.g., health, career). Specify:

      1. What will you do?

      2. How will you do it?

      3. What would be considered a success/failure?

    2. Then, give it a try for a week and see how it goes.

    3. At the end of the week, ask yourself:

      1. What did you learn?

      2. How can I apply this lesson going forward?

Dive Deeper

For those inclined to further explore Confucius:

  • Dive into The Analects for a direct encounter with his sayings.

  • Confucius: And the World He Created by Michael Schuman offers a comprehensive look at his life’s impact.

  • The Path by Michael Puett and Christine Gross-Loh provides modern applications of his and other Chinese philosophies.

Thank you for joining this week's "Wisdom Wednesdays." See you next time!

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