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  • Paul LaLonde

The Vinegar Tasters, Pooh Bear, and HR: Willy, Nilly, Silly, Old HR

“The further one goes, the less one knows.” ― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

“The world belongs to those who let go.” ― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

vinegar-tasters

The Vinegar Tasters – Confucius, Buddha, and Lao-Tzu.


My parents divorced when I was a little boy of only seven years. It came suddenly and out of nowhere, at least to me. My three brothers and mom moved from our home to my uncle’s home. It was challenging. Yet, I remember not feeling much else but resignation. It’s an odd feeling for a seven-year-old to show – complete acceptance of what was happening in the moment. I didn’t ask many questions. I just was. The situation just was.

I’m not saying this was normal, or even healthy. I am simply stating it was where I was at the time. Maybe it was healthy. Maybe it showed a level of maturity not seen in many children my age, who were supposedly being showered in participation trophies. I don’t have any participation trophies, by the way. But I digress.

It was at my uncle’s house that I first remember seeing Winnie the Pooh. I don’t remember much other than the silly theme music. My aunt, bless her heart, put it on for my cousins and my brothers to watch. It wasn’t my favorite Disney movie, show, or whatever. But I watched it. I did like how innocent Pooh Bear was, how infectiously kind and gentle he was. Nothing bothered him – Pooh just was. Even if I didn’t “like” it at the time, I believe it was what I needed.

Fast forward almost thirty years later. I am sitting at the SHRM Conference in Las Vegas awaiting a presentation by Erich Kurschat, called “Network Like an Introvert.” Like the stereotypical introvert I am, I’m sitting with Tracie and Chris, two other introverts I met maybe an hour earlier… introverts are powerful people, yet I digress again.

Erich is a good friend. Before he begins his presentation, he comes up to hug me and hands me a book. He says “I read this and thought of you. It reminded me of your stoicism.” The book was The Tao of Pooh.

I’m touched, of course, and begin reading the hell out of the book – not DURING his presentation! Afterwards, I read it. Erich seemed to have a pretty good grasp on my philosophical leanings and interests. I’ve studied Taoism casually. It’s a fascinating philosophy (or belief system depending on your point of view), if not one that’s a little outside my understanding. But, maybe that’s the point of Taoism! Those who don’t understand truly know! Or something like that.

The book opens with the ancient Chinese parable of the Vinegar Tasters. In the parable, vinegar represents life. In Chinese history, there are three major influences (essences) on society, culture, and religion.

First, there is Confucius. As he tastes the vinegar, he has a sour look on his face. Modern life, represented by the vinegar, is out of whack with tradition according to Confucius. He is obsessed with order and rules. The only way to build a sound structure in society and honor the past is to factitiously build a system of rituals and rules that links traditions of the past to modern life. We need to maintain the social order by enforcing rules and regulations on the people. Only through strict bureaucratic leanings, which is the result of the rituals and rules, can one find true happiness!

Second, there’s the Buddha. According to the Buddha, life is suffering, thus he has a bitter look on this face while tasting the vinegar. Attachments and desires lead people astray! Modern life is too obsessed with what it doesn’t have – attachment to desires, possessions, statuses, etc. Therefore, people must focus on attaining enlightenment, or a complete detachment of desire and want. Only by detachment can one find true happiness in life!

Finally, there is Lao-Tzu. As he tastes the vinegar, he smiles. Life is sweet. You see, heaven and earth are mirror images of each other. The rules of heaven apply to the earth. When people try to change the rules or try to live a life outside the rules of nature, suffering emerges. The point is to live in acceptance with nature as it truly is. That’s why Lao-Tzu is smiling. Modern life is exactly as it is supposed to be. So, smile, and be happy. Happiness comes out of working with life’s circumstances. A perceived negative can be changed into a positive when one let’s life flow as water flows.

What does this have to do within the realm of HR? I believe it points to the type of HR professional we can strive to be. (And in the grander scheme of things, the type of person!)

Do you want to be the stuffy HR pro who obsesses over the rules, all else be damned? I think of these individuals as the Rabbit of HR. Everything must be just so! “Excuse me this document wasn’t signed on line 12 properly, and the policy states we need to follow this to the exact letter, and then we need to stamp this page, this page, and then this page….” Look, following policies and procedures is important – to a point! However, policies are GUIDES not LAWS. We deal with people. People are messy and cannot fit into every situation exactly. Use the guides as consistently as you can, but be flexible enough to ensure we’re treating our people justly according to what is right and just, not according to the arbitrary policy. I don’t want to be Rabbit.

Do you want to be the frumpy HR pro who finds pain and suffering in all things? I think to these individuals as the Eeyore of HR. “Well, I guess today is going to be another day where I get yelled at by Joe in legal for not following the policy ‘to the T.’ Woe is me. And Georgette in accounting is always looking at me cockeyed. She just doesn’t like me. Woe is me. And my boss is always angry at me. I’m not sure what I’ve done today, but I just know I will get yelled at. Also, my red stapler is missing.” It’s sad really, because these people generally are great workers who can’t get out of their own way! I don’t want to be Eeyore.

Or, do you want to be the harmonized HR pro, who finds situations as opportunities exactly as they are meant to be? I think of these individuals as the Pooh Bear of HR. These HR professionals see that harmony exists between heaven and earth, employer and employee. Every situational challenge is an opportunity to further this harmony. The bad cannot exist without the good. The rough cannot exist without the smooth. They weave and move and accept things for what they are. They change what they can and do not change what they can’t. They accept. They simply are. I like the idea of Pooh Bear. I want to be Pooh Bear.

Sour expression, bitter expression, smiling expression. Which HR professional (or person) do you want to be?

So, as I determine which HR professional I strive to be, I remember that little seven-year-old – the one who just was. The one who was strong in the face of distress and hardship. The seven-year-old who remained steady, calm, and in control. He just was. So, too, will I strive to remain as is – to remain.

I guess the point is, if I wish to be the person who smiles at life’s vinegar, I must remember my experience as a child. If seven-year-old Paul can simply “be” in the midst of a traumatic event such as divorce, then how can adult Paul act any different under far less traumatic events? Let’s face it. HR is a tough field, but employees bickering or a boss yelling at me pales in comparison to a family being demolished from within.

It’s about perspective, and to gain peace, we sometimes need to lose that perspective. Children don’t have any, or much of it, so they are the wisest amongst us many times, at least according to the Tao and Pooh.

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