Aristotle said, “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” He is, of course, not the only thinker in history with this opinion. Socrates’s famous dictum to “know yourself” speaks to a deep cultural trend in which self-examination, and perhaps fidelity to what one finds, is paramount. The aphorism “Unto thyself be true,” is frequently attributed to Shakespeare, rather than the pompous, pontifical character of Polonius who speaks the words.
Today, happiness has entered into the realm traditionally kept by philosophy. The idea that knowing who you are can make you happy is almost taken for granted. As long as one is being true to oneself, and one’s goals, things can only be better and happier, or so the conventional wisdom goes.
Michael Puett, however, who is Professor of Chinese History at Harvard, has different ideas about the self, philosophy, happiness, and what all that has to do with something called trained spontaneity.
Though it seems oxymoronic, trained spontaneity has more to do with finding the right time to do what makes you happy. Perhaps having a quiet workplace is ideal, meaning once in a while speaking up to the noisy neighboring cubicle. Nothing too wild and crazy, as the film Office Space taught us — no one needs to go knocking down the walls of their cubicles. Instead, knocking down a pattern or routine every once in a while, as Puett suggests, can lead to a happier work place.
Michael Puett is the Walter C. Klein Professor of Chinese History in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations and Chair of the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. He is the author of The Ambivalence of Creation: Debates Concerning Innovation and Artifice in Early China and To Become a God: Cosmology, Sacrifice, and Self-Divinization in Early China, as well as the coauthor of Ritual and its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity. In 2013, he was awarded a Harvard College Professorship for excellence in undergraduate teaching.