The Way of Retreat: How To Get Promoted Without Doing Anything

do nothing

You leave no cushion unturned. You search the house until you’re in a state, roaring internally (and perhaps externally) with frustration. You waste ten minutes and a load of energy.

Eventually you give up the hunt – that important form you were filling out has disappeared into the ether. Sulking, you put the kettle on and plonk yourself in front of the TV.

Then you finally hear it – that quiet voice inside. It was talking to you all along, telling you that the form was in your back pocket the whole time – right where you put it when that charity collector knocked on the door.

Flow Like Water

Life works in cycles – just as there will be times when progress is easy and enjoyable, there will be times when the obstacles you face seem insurmountable. This is not the time to push harder.

It is the time to retreat, to let go, to meditate and wait. It is the time to cease judgment and to practice acceptance.

In our society we are brought up to believe that in times of adversity the way forward is to push, to fight, to be steadfast. We are told to grit our teeth, roll up our sleeves and persevere despite all odds.

The Taoist way teaches the opposite, recommending the way of yin – the way of water. A steady drip of water can erode a path through rock, and it does so while yielding.

The Taoists called this wu wei – effortless action. Often by not responding we find a solution will naturally arise. This strategy can, despite all you may have been brought up to believe, render powerless the aggressor. Instead of trying, fail to respond. Replace advancement with retreat. Instead of resisting, submit. Rather than facing up, hide. Don’t push; flow around the rocks.

Running Out of Juice?

Years ago I took on a job managing a small juice bar, part of a chain. I thought it would be easy. It wasn’t. The demands from head office were incredible. My days were spent racing against the clock, pushing myself to the limit. I would start early and hit the couch late each night completely bushed and unable to enjoy life. To make things worse, the pay wasn’t very good.

Stressed out, exhausted and perpetually broke, I considered my options. I was giving my all, and although I was meeting the demands being placed on me, it was obvious I couldn’t go on this way for long. I couldn’t hire more staff as I had to run the shop on a tight ‘cash-takings to staff-hours’ percentage formula. In order to make the percentage I could only ever put on a certain amount of staff (never enough to take the pressure off).

It seemed obvious that I would have to quit, but I needed an income. So I decided to give it a month and just see what came up. I gave my notice, and waited. Within two weeks, to my surprise, I was offered a job at head office – with higher pay and much better conditions. Sweet!

The lesson I learned here was that ‘doing nothing’, or retreating, is one of the best forward moving strategies available. If I had kept pushing myself I would have burned out. I would have lost my temper with somebody from head office or made myself ill, and in both cases wound up without an income. Instead – by retreating and waiting, by taking the path of least resistance – a better solution naturally arose.

Responding passively does not automatically sound like good advice to the Western ear. The word ‘passive’ is connected with weakness; ‘look after number one’ is the prevailing wisdom. But if we hang back, problems often resolve of their own accord. Meanwhile we can save energy, and earn respect, by refusing to respond in a knee-jerk way.

The Up-Side of Passive Aggression

You are being continuously hounded by a nasty, arrogant middle-manager – somebody senior to you, but not the overall boss. This person keeps pushing you around; not explaining your role clearly, getting mad at you for not doing things their way, and taking every opportunity to make you look stupid in front of others.

How should you respond?

If you were to react aggressively, you would do yourself no favors. The chances are this would work against you because, when faced with two ranting idiots, the boss would probably see little option but to take sides with the more senior staff member.

But if you were to respond meekly, if you kept your temper in check and your best manners and diplomacy on display, you would set yourself up for a better outcome. The chances are that if your middle-manager is stomping around belittling people, then the person is probably making few friends and earning little respect. All you need do is wait and watch as this person digs his or her own grave.

People will start to niggle about him or her to you – just smile mysteriously (it is important that you don’t give an opinion yourself, but allow others to draw their own inferences from your silence).

Nasty Manager, Hidden Opportunity

Eventually, if they don’t already know about it, the powers-that-be will find out about your middle-manager’s bad attitude, and one day you will arrive at work to find his or her desk empty. They finally got up the boss’s nose to get sneezed out the door.

Meanwhile, you, Oh Master of the Effortless Way, will have done nothing to harm your own reputation – and you just may find you have effortlessly earned yourself a tasty little promotion…

28 thoughts on “The Way of Retreat: How To Get Promoted Without Doing Anything”

  1. Hi Seamus, I have a Tai Chi video that I watch and follow along with sometimes and one of the positions involves crouching down toward the ground and then jumping up. The moderator explains that there are times in life when the best thing you can do is crouch down and wait, while there are other times when the moment is right to jump up and spring into action. I think this is the same approach we need to take in life, as you point out in your article.

    Marelisas last blog post..Five Amazing Stress-Busting Methods on YouTube

  2. @Peter – yes I’ve got that book by Wayne Dyer. I picked it up from the review pile at the magazine I was working at, because of the Taoist theme, but I didn’t open it for ages due to the cheesy cover. When I did, it turned out to be a very peaceful reassuring book.

    @Marelisa – yes, spot on. It’s all very Bruce Lee really ;-)

    Seamus Anthonys last blog post..The Tao of Cats and Dogs

  3. “Nasty Manager, Hidden Opportunity” is a priceless topic header. I need to get more creative and witty with my topic headers and this, as well as of course the rest of the post, is an inspiration to us all.

  4. Your post rings very true for me.

    Along the way in my life I’ve gotten far better results by backing off of some challenges and letting time take care of things, or handling them from a different angle level.

    I agree that when dealing with nasty managers or evil people, there is often an opportunity to grow. I don’t think not taking action is the same as being passive, when you’re being passive intentionally.

    I’m going to take a look at Wayne Dyer’s book.

    Thanks for covering this.

    Flora Morris Brown, Ph.D.s last blog post..It’s Been Wa-a-a-y Too Serious Around Here Lately

    1. Flora,

      I also suggest looking into audiobooks if you haven’t already done so (I get mine from Audible). I say this because there is something about listening to the Tao that makes it all the more peaceful.


  5. Thanks to everyone for the comments. It’s been an honour to have my first post up on TheChangeBlog. A quick funny related story – shortly after this story went up a tradesman digging a trench in my front yard cut through the phone and cable line, so I have been practicing my “Zen and the art of trying to get the phone company to come and fix it” from what I can tell, those cats are the masters of effortless action …

    Seamus Anthonys last blog post..The Tao of Cats and Dogs

    1. Damn Telstra! Let me assure you, though, the phone companies are no better here in Canada…… “effortless action” must be how phone companies worldwide operate.

  6. Interesting article, but I’m not sure I’m sold. The idea of kicking back when the going gets tough is a great piece of “feel good” ideology — but does it really work? I would argue that you might have gotten the promotion earlier if you actively sought out a promotion or done a job search on your own. Taking it easy is important, you certainly don’t want to be stressed out all the time. But complacency certainly isn’t the answer.

    Max Bottaros last blog post..Accepting Serenity

  7. I can understand the wisdom in what you say, Seamus. But what happens when you’ve taken the passive-aggressive road with no success? Might there be certain times when this response is appropriate and certain times when action is truly necessary? And I guess, how would one be able to distinguish between the 2 situations if this is in fact the case?

    I thoroughly enjoy working from home right now, but what I’ve noticed is that it doesn’t always bring in the kind of income I’d like. I have tried pushing forward with my efforts, I’ve tried praying and leaving it to the higher powers, and I’ve tried to just sit back and observe the situation from as objective a viewpoint as possible. What I’ve found is that in many cases the less I do, the worse the situation becomes. I don’t know if that actually is or if I’m just perceiving it that way. But working from home, my income is not guaranteed. So the worker in me feels that if I don’t push, I won’t earn. I really don’t know how to overcome that feeling, as I’ve had a back experience with doing just that in the past. Likewise in the past, I’ve had good come out of pushing (heck, I’ve had a $3000 day come out of it).

    How do we know when to push and when to sit back and reflect, in your opinion?

  8. Hi Ina,

    Your question “Might there be certain times when this response is appropriate and certain times when action is truly necessary?” can be rephrased as its own answer:

    “There are certain times when this response is appropriate and certain times when action is truly necessary.”

    The point is never to act but knowing when to act and how and when not to act.

  9. Most excellent post Seamus. Just happened on your post here a few minutes ago. I like!

    As a fencing coach, I was about to reply to the post with an example from that sport to show how this translates into concrete action, because sometimes the idea of the Tao and its principles seems so esoteric.

    But perhaps I could even be more practical and use an example even more familiar to your readers: driving.

    As a motorcyclist, I’m always aware of the space around me. When someone decides to come over on me–that is, they decide they come into my lane, I have the choice of staying put, or edging closer to them. And honking, waving, kicking out, etc.

    Either choice is fairly obstinate, and could even be considered aggressive. And to be honest, sometimes one or the other could actually be necessary, depending on what’s going on around me.

    However, usually, there’s a third option: retreat. And that’s not being passive or wimpy (which I think most people associate with this particular Taoist principle, and hence have difficulty with it). I’m actively, smartly, crisply, and calmly keeping space between us as they come over. It’s as if there’s a space buffer that I allow to push me safely aside, with no drama.

    And I think that’s the key, is to allow that push, keep the space, and keep it drama-free. Often then, they see me (and this will happen even in my truck, so it’s not just a motorcycle issue–I always try to be “big” and be seen whatever I’m driving; people do get distracted so much these days), and they get this surprised, but slightly ashamed look to them, and we’re done.

    I haven’t contested the space, and I haven’t been killed, nor killed anyone, yet. :) If anything, it’s a fun test of my skills. And I’m free to zoom off to my next adventure.

    Anyway–I hope perhaps this “non-wimpy” example of wu-wei helps somebody out.

    Cheers, mate, and keep up the good work!

    Bills last blog post..Stoking The Furnace

  10. This concept of flowing “like water” is quite applicable, but one must remember a key point about it: they have to be where the water flows before they can do so. One can act in this way once they are in the position to put extraneous information aside and head forward in a calm and smooth fashion.

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