The Uncarved Wood Theory of Productivity


There is a Chinese word, Pu, that can be translated as “uncarved wood” or “uncarved block.” In Taoist philosophy, it is the embodiment of simplicity, a state of being worth striving for, or rather, returning to.

The essence of the principle of the Uncarved Block is that things in their original simplicity contain their own natural power, power that is easily spoiled and lost when that simplicity is changed…This basic Taoist principle applies not only to things in their natural beauty and function, but to people as well.

– Benjamin Hoff, The Tao of Pooh

It seems a bit odd to revere a block of wood. A great wood sculpture, yes, that is excellent art. But the raw material? It’s simply, that, raw material. What good is it?

Modern productivity culture encourages us to change from a state of uncarved wood, to something more…productive. As we get older we are expected to get better at a particular skill or set of skills (usually tied to you a career path) until we have attained some level of success.

So we get wrapped up in this idea that we are supposed to be something more than just an uncarved block of wood. We panic when we see our peers being carved into something respected and beautiful while we still look awfully block-like.

We try our best to hurry ourselves to our final, carved state. We buy self-help books that promise to help us figure out what type of carved wood we should be. A hammer? A sculpture? An investment banker?

Then we scour the blogs for advice from people seemingly ahead in their quest to become a hammer or sculpture or investment banker and implement their recommendations. We go to networking events and schmooze with the right people. We look for the latest “hack” that will make us 10x more productive than the other blocks of wood we are competing with. We get excited when our bosses recognize that yes, they can definitely see that we’re developing into something better than an uncarved block.

But on the occasion in which we do stop for a second, we realize that we’re tired and maybe even disappointed that we are not as happy as we thought we’d be at this stage in our lives. Not just plain old unhappy, but rather, unhappy because we’re not happy.

If we’re lucky, we’ll realize that maybe being an uncarved block of wood isn’t so bad after all. Once it is carved, it will eventually only have one use, or at least, more limited uses, and perhaps those chunks that were carved off weren’t so useless after all. Perhaps they were even necessary to feeling complete, to feeling whole.

So maybe, instead of succumbing to pressure to carve off chunks of yourself to become more “useful” and “productive,” we should instead return to the state of uncarved wood, a more natural way of existing.

When you discard arrogance, complexity, and a few other things that get in the way, sooner of later you will discover that simple, childlike, and mysterious secret known to those of the Uncarved Block: Life is Fun….

From the state of the Uncarved Block comes the ability to enjoy the simple and the quiet, the natural and the plain. Along with that comes the ability to do things spontaneously and have them work, odd as that may appear to others at times.

– Benjamin Hoff, The Tao of Pooh


  • Ashish Nair

    Despite your great posts on Tao so far, I still have problems trying to conceptually reconcile these concepts with Western thinking. The only way I can think of incorporating this it to think of it as being completely devoted to the task at hand as it were…i.e. when working, work, when playing, play. What are your thoughts?

    • They might not be fully compatible. As much as I like to see commonalities among different philosophies and religions, they are sometimes very different in certain ways.

      I think Taoism is a bit more than just focusing, rather, it’s understanding the environment and circumstances you are in and not struggling against them. It emphasizes judicial use of your energy, and a detachment from outcomes.

      Western thinking is very much about setting a goal, and doing all you can to achieve it regardless of difficulty or appropriateness. The bigger the goal, the better.

      Taoist thinking (based on my research) seems to be about understanding that perhaps it’s best not to have a particular goal in outcome or mind, or if you do, be willing to adapt it to the opportunities that present themselves to you. Sometimes you should work tirelessly, but other times, your best option may be best to do nothing.

      I don’t see a good way to reconcile the two modes of thought, but maybe we can switch back and forth between the two ways as appropriate.

      • Ashish Nair

        Yeah, I personally took a gap year before university and read philosophy that was very much into this type of thought, so I struggled a lot trying to come to terms with becoming a productive member of society and student, with rather just doing what’s needed and nothing more.

        • I just read “No Man is an Island” by the Catholic monk Thomas Merton. He has some good thoughts on being active in the world while remaining lovingly detached. Might be worth reading if you have time.

          • Ashish Nair

            Thanks, will look into it.