When the town’s crime boss wants a precious piece of land, he sends some of his goons to terrorize the school that’s built on it. First, they threaten the principal, then they torch a classroom.
Luckily, the local Kung Fu master saves the day. When he tries to acquire more help in form of the police, however, the chief says his hands are tied. His boss took the case. Corruption. After listening patiently, the master starts talking:
“The world’s not fair. But moral standards should apply to all. Those who rule aren’t superior and those who are ruled aren’t inferior. This world doesn’t belong to the rich. Or even the powerful. It belongs to those with pure hearts.
Have you thought about the children? Everything we do, they’re watching. And everything we don’t do. We need to be good role models.”
And then, master Ip Man says something important. Something we forget. Something that, little by little, seems to fade from the human story:
“Everything we do is not for today — but for tomorrow.”
How Proverbs Come To Be
He explains the stereotype that Asians are good at school, particularly math, partly with the fact that they have been rice farmers for centuries.
Unlike Western farmland, rice paddies are built. Constructed. Not just in the landscape, but each unit too. They’re painstakingly assembled, complex systems of dikes, channels, and various layers of clay, mud, and fertilizer. Transplanting seeds, weeding, grooming, harvesting, it’s all done by hand.
What’s more, with a hotel-room sized paddy carrying a family of six and neither mechanical tools nor more land available, skills, choices, and dedication have always been the name of the rice farming game.
Unsurprisingly, Gladwell concludes:
“Throughout history, the people who grow rice have always worked harder than almost any other kind of farmer.”
Now, before you object with the lifestyle of European peasants back in the day, Gladwell did too — and found out it was less intense. Looking at some of the last remaining hunter-gatherers in Botswana and farmers in 18th-century France, he found they worked about 1,000–1,200 hours a year, spending most of their days idling and hibernating, especially in winter.
“Working in a rice field is ten to twenty times more labor-intensive than working on an equivalent-size corn or wheat field. Some estimates put the annual workload of a wet-rice farmer in Asia at three thousand hours a year.”
That’s eight hours a day, every day, compared to 5–6 hours for 200 days a year. With the same amount of time off, rice farmers would work 15-hour days.
There are multiple reasons for this difference, one being that rice paddies don’t require fallow periods. To the contrary, they become more fertile the more they’re cultivated. Another is that it’s a complex, autonomous task, a little business if you will, where inputs correlate closely to outputs, more so than in Western farming. Finally, Asian rice farmers’ efforts weren’t in vain, as they paid fixed rents and kept the extra, unlike the lowly paid victims of a greedy, aristocratic landlord.
The result is that today, a Russian proverb is “If God does not bring it, the earth will not give it,” whereas the Chinese equivalent goes “Don’t depend on heaven for food, but on your own two hands carrying the load.”
Most of us could use more of the latter and less of the former. And while Westerners often mock their Asian friends for their stereotypical work ethic, Gladwell says it’s at the heart of literally every case study in his book. As he puts it, “a belief in work ought to be a thing of beauty.”
Besides inspiring us to be more patient in our own lives, the other lesson from all this is that there’s another kind of tomorrow other than the’ literal one we know. It’s the kind the Kung Fu master was talking about and it reminds us:
We’re standing on the shoulders not of giants, but generations.
I saw a tweet this morning from my fellow German Dorothee Bär. She said:
“Go to Twitter — see Germans tweeting in my feed — wish to be back in Austin — close Twitter.”
There’s nothing wrong with this tweet, unless you’re a Member of Parliament and Minister of State for Digitization. Unfortunately, she is. Ms. Bär isn’t thinking about tomorrow. She isn’t even tweeting for today. She wants yesterday back when her whole job is to create a better future. That’s sad.
In our modern world built for immediate gratification, there’s a lot of shortsighted thinking like this. Politicians, CEOs, entertainers, everyone is obsessed with surviving the next release, the next earnings call, the next election. But what about tomorrow? What about those who aren’t yet born?
That’s why I’ll always root for Elon Musk. Yes, he too tweets nonsense and has his antics, but a man dumping his entire $180 million fortune into a triad of companies dedicated to better energy, better transport, and to explore a planet he’ll neither live nor die on is, clearly, thinking about tomorrow.
Most of us aren’t politicians, CEOs, or entertainers. We don’t want to make it our life’s mission to ensure survival for the human race. That’s fine. But even in our own lives, it’d help if we did more things for tomorrow. Technology is now greatly compounding the returns.
“The earnings were finally as large as I first dreamed about 10 months ago.”
She deserves every penny, but it’s a line few people will ever get to say about that figure. Whether we asked a European peasant from 1700, an ancient Asian rice farmer, or a Kung Fu teacher from the 1950s, none of this was possible for them. They couldn’t just swap careers, grow a movement from their couch, or quadruple their earnings in a year. We live in amazing times.
And yet, without those peasants, farmers, and teachers, none of us would be here. What they did for tomorrow is the foundation of what we can do today.
Discipline Is Freedom
My great-grandma lived through two world wars. She walked seven miles to work — one-way. My dad’s grandpa delivered and installed curtains in a 30-mile radius around his town. On a bike. My job is to sit on a chair or couch or bed, drink coffee, and write things like this. How could I not be grateful?
And yet, I know, it’s easy to forget. To get lost in the everyday adrenaline rush. I wish there was a Kung Fu master in my town. Or a rice paddy across the street. But there isn’t, and so it’s my job to remember when I see shortsighted tweets: discipline is freedom.
Sometimes, it won’t be our freedom, but the freedom of those who’ll follow us. It might not be freedom from strife, unfairness, or adversity. But from arrogance, from taking things for granted, and from self-pity.
We might not always benefit ourselves, not always reap the rice from the seeds we sow, but as today so on our final day, we’ll lay to rest in peace.
After all, whoever’s tomorrow it is, it will be slightly better than today.