The Art of Formlessness

Mastering the Art of Formlessness is as valuable in the business world as it is the practice of martial arts. The ability to assume different forms as circumstances dictate, if only momentarily, can be invaluable in dealing not only with business competitors, but even rivals, supervisors and co-workers.

Depending both on one’s interpretation of “formlessness” and its actual application, this practice may be construed as an expression of deceptiveness, although in reality, it argues for the ability to not be wedded to a single definition by outside parties, and to display such traits as adaptability and resourcefulness in order to provide a range of useful attributes. Fans of Bruce Lee may recall his admonition to, “Be like water,” which was not an analogy original to him. However, his point to remain malleable and fluid, traits that water in its liquid form clearly exhibits, speak to its nature.


So how exactly does the pursuit of formlessness translate into everyday life?

Ultimately, it emphasizes the importance of not adhering to a rigid definition or state of being, which is a hallmark of remaining adaptable to changing circumstances. While change has been a constant since time immemorial, the speed of change which confronts many of us on a daily basis only seems to accelerate, and the consequences of not adapting to such change only seem to grow more severe over time, rather than less so. However, given the all too natural resistance to change which seems to be evident in most people, such a process of “re-invention” or even evolution is often only undertaken under the gravest of circumstances, and seldom willingly. In other words, the default setting for most people is to be “reactive” rather than “proactive.”

This I believe is a fundamental mistake, and one that can cause missed opportunities, if not complete paralysis in our modern working world. Water again is an appropriate metaphor in understanding the practical application of this strategy. Regardless of the form (i.e. state) that it assumes in a given moment – liquid, solid or gas – water’s core properties remain the same. However, by its very malleable nature, water adapts to its environment and short of consumption and evaporation, it essentially endures.


It is readily observable that water, given sufficient time, can erode and otherwise degrade the hardest stone or metals. Yet liquid water, to the touch, can feel quite soft and by definition is supple and pliant, which belies its power to act on other substances.

When dealing with people on a personal level or within a business context, it may be advantageous not to confront them directly or attempt to bend them to your will or influence a favorable decision from your own point of view via a direct approach, but rather to employ more indirect tactics such as flattery or via compromise on less important issues.  Alternatively, you might re-direct their attention to other matters in order to make the person feel more secure, powerful, and ultimately more favorably disposed to agree to the primary result that you are seeking.

Direct confrontation, whether it is verbal or physical, is ultimately predicated on being stronger, or in a position of real or perceived greater advantage than the other party. It’s really that simple. So if direct force is to be applied in order to seek a favorable resolution, you must be confident in the ability of the force that you can muster to overwhelm the opponent’s counter in a specific moment in time.

Otherwise, your use of force is likely to result in failure.


It is important to understand that “strength” is a relative term and that attributes which in one context might be considered favorable or classified as assets, can in another context become liabilities and vulnerabilities which can be exploited.

For example, if you are dealing with an individual with a rampant ego, challenging that person’s ego directly may be a non-starter or detrimental to obtaining the results that you are seeking. Such people may be threatened by ideas or work output which challenges their own preconceptions or potentially exposes poor decisions which they have made. The art in dealing with someone of this temperament is to appeal to their ego and vanity and present your ideas or work in such a way as to enable them to assume partial or even full credit for the work or idea, or to otherwise point out benefits that they can realize by supporting your vision. In doing so, you avoid challenging their authority or knowledge directly, and do not cause them to “lose face” with others, which is often of paramount concern for such individuals.

From one point of view, such behavior might seem manipulative, but human interaction is often based on people seeking to obtain a specific result, which may or may not coincide with the direct interests of the other party. When interests align, securing such cooperation is easy, but in situations where they do not, diplomacy and tact, perhaps tempered with some subterfuge, are often the means utilized to obtain what is desired.


As human beings, we make choices in life, and among these are whether we stand for certain principles or not, and whether we believe in situational ethics or not. Truthfully, in my interactions in both business and personal affairs, I’ve noticed that there is a segment of the population which believes solely in expediency and will change their stances on issues to suit their immediate needs. For people of this ilk, “truth” is highly elastic and integrity is a nice concept to pay lip service to, but is absent when the rubber meets the road.

In assuming formlessness, an individual can still remain true to core principles and closely held beliefs. Those who dissemble and spin the truth are fraudulent, not “formless.” Water, even if existing in a solid or gaseous state, returns to its liquid form when environmental conditions change. It does not become something else.

Your principles, and how firmly you hold to them, will in large part determine your destiny. You can temporarily assume a posture of formlessness by not clinging to a narrowly defined model of attributes and behavior without betraying the core of who you are.

This is the Art of Formlessness…

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