Everyone wants to be a master. No one wants to be a student.
“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”
— Mahatma Gandhi
Most people would love to be successful. They would love to be a master of some craft and enjoy the fruits of that success.
And most people do not understand what it takes to be a student. A hungry student. A student who voraciously seeks answers and truth. With purpose.
Most of us think that our schooling and education end with graduation.
Most people want the results of the masters but the freedom of a student.
And most people do not realize that masters have a responsibility and burden that students do not have.
The truth is that there are challenges of being a master, and there is joy and fun in being a student.
Lies We Tell Ourselves
“We learn more by looking for the answer to a question and not finding it than we do from learning the answer itself.”
— Lloyd Alexander
Most people have some experience of being called a student, whether in grade school, college, or some other format.
But there is a difference between being a student in a class and actually being a serious student of a topic.
Most people go to school and think that they automatically know how to be a student.
If I am in a class, I have to be a student, right?
If I sit at a desk, I must be a student, right?
If I have a textbook, I must be a student, right?
If I have a teacher assigned to me, I must be a student, right?
Being a student takes more just sitting in a class.
It takes more than having a teacher picked for you and assigned to teach you.
It takes more than a textbook, a course, or having a cool-looking bag.
Lie #1: I Am Not a Student
“A child educated only at school is an uneducated child.”
— George Santayana
If you think you are not a student, you are wrong.
We are all in a state of constantly needing to learn.
Some of us are still in some type of formal schooling. However, others are not.
It doesn’t matter: we are all students.
When formal schooling ends, your education should not.
And being a student actually has nothing to do with your age. The best students are 30, 40, 50, 60, or even 70 years old. At some point, you realize that the best teachers, the “best classes,” and the best lessons are not in schools, but outside of the traditional schoolroom.
Lie #2: I Know How to Be a Student
“You cannot add water to a cup that is full.”
— Zen proverb
Most people are horrible students.
Most people think that if they get a good grade in a class, then they are doing well. They might do enough to get a good grade, but they often do not become a student of the class, the material, or the teacher.
Being a student is more than getting a good grade or mark.
The Gaggan episode of Chef’s Table on Netflix provides two perfect examples of the student mindset.
The chef Gaggan was working at a top restaurant in India. One of the chefs cooked biryani, an Indian dish with chicken and rice. Gaggan wanted to learn how to cook this dish, but the chef would not teach him.
So Gaggan arrived at the restaurant four hours early every single day. He ironed the chef’s coats, brought the coats from the laundry to the restaurant, polished the chef’s shoes, and even brought a bottle of the chef’s favored drink each week. Eventually, the chef relented and taught Gaggan how to make the biryani. Why? Because Gaggan demonstrated he was a student.
Later in the same episode, Gaggan decides that he wants to open his own Indian restaurant to become the best Indian chef in the world. So what does he do? He determines the best restaurant in the world — El Bulli in Spain — and studies it. Gaggan buys all of the available recipe books from El Bulli. He tries every single recipe himself. He learns as much as he can. And then, he calls everyone he knows that has met the chef, and tries to get an extended internship there.
In the end, he reached out by email and asked for an internship. And he became an intern at the best restaurant in the world.
Think of this:
- Gaggan was already a successful chef.
- Yet he was willing to become an intern at the best restaurant in the world.
- Just because he wanted to learn from the best.
Gaggan was a real student. He asked questions and his thirst was not quenched until had an answer from a master.
How many times do we go through the motion of being a student without actually having a student mindset?
A true student has a certain mindset.
- A student asks questions. There is an intent to quench a burning thirst and hunger when seeking an answer.
- A student feels compelled — forced — to seek out the answers, or something will break inside of them.
- A student knows there is a gap that must be filled — a gap of knowledge, understanding, truth.
- A student pays attention. Intense attention.
- A student seeks first to understand.
- A student listens so intently and with such intensity that it can be intimidating.
- When the teacher makes a suggestion, a student views it as mandatory.
- A student strives to soak up as much as possible from the teacher, while still respecting the relationship.
- A student wants answers — and is inspired and motivated to find those answers.
“When you want to succeed as bad as you want to breathe, then you will be successful”
— Dr. Eric Thomas (and many others)
The Best Advice for Students
“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
— Stephen R. Covey
Here is the single best piece of advice that I have for a student:
- Just stop talking.
- How can you ever learn if you are telling everybody what you know and what you think?
- You can’t. And you won’t.
Here is the second best piece of advice that I have for a student:
- It is not enough to stop talking.
- You need to actually listen as well.
- My rule is this: if you do not have a question that burns in your mind after you listen, then you were not paying enough attention.
You really need to follow the advice in that order, as well.
Lie #3: I Know How to Be a Master
“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. When the teacher is ready, the student will appear.”
Most people would love to be a master of some skill or ability.
But the road to mastery requires a path as a true student, with the right mindset. You cannot be a master without first being a student.
And you do not become a master simply by being a student for a certain period of time. It takes more than that.
The master has asked the questions. The master has found answers. The master has used the thirst and quest for knowledge to achieve results.
While the student requires a certain mindset, the master must have tangible success.
But a master also has a deep responsibility: a master’s results are worthless if they are not used to benefit others.
A master must:
- Teach others
- And, most importantly, listen.
“Who dares to teach must never cease to learn.”
— John Cotton Dana
The Wrong Way to Act for Masters and Students
Most students do not know how to be students.
And most masters do not know how to act as masters.
Here are some of the wrong behaviors for a student:
- A “teach me” mindset rather than one of gratitude
- Lack of hunger
- Failing to listen
And here are some of the wrong behaviors for a master:
- Authority-driven influence
- Positional leadership
- Not acting in the best interests of the tribe or the followers
Remember the Gaggan episode of Chef’s Table? When the chef first taught him how to make biryani, he left out the most important part: the spices. The chef failed to act like a true master because he was not serving his student. The chef neglected his responsibility.
The Ultimate Solution… Pick One: Either Student or Master
“Don’t correct when you have disagreement. Only correct when you are in front of a learner.”
The truth is that in some situations, we are students. And in others, we are the master.
- Being a Student. Recently, I sat at a table next to two multi-millionaires. I followed my own advice: (1) shut up, and (2) listen. Why would I say a word? I wanted to learn from those two people.
- Being a Master. I also recently had breakfast with someone who wanted my advice. I listened intently to try to find a way that I could serve that person. In my spirit, I wanted to help. Leadership is service.
It is often challenging, though, to determine how we should act in certain situations: are we the student, or the master?
Fortunately, I have discovered a framework to guide me and help me determine how I should act in any situation.
Here it is.
- First, make the decision that in any situation you will either be the student or the master.
- Then, pick one: decide whether you are the student or the master in the situation. You must be one or the other ‒ nothing in between.
- Finally, act in the way either a student should act or a master should act.
In every situation, pick one, and follow through on the best mindset and actions for each.
Here is what this really means: in every situation, your goal should be to either learn from someone (as a student) or to serve someone (as a master).
What If You Are Not Sure Whether You Are the Master or the Student?
“When one teaches, two learn.”
— Robert Half
Sometimes you might not know. Fortunately, there is an easy solution.
If you are not sure, pick one.
Don’t get lost in the middle.
Here’s the secret: you will never be wrong if you pick one: student or master.
Then, make sure to either listen as the hungry student, or to serve as the respectful master.
You are only wrong if you do not pick one.
The master serves. The student seeks to understand.
You will die in the middle.
Here are a few personal examples:
- Recently I talked way too much when I was with a friend who was ultimately more successful than me. I should have listened to his viewpoints more than my own! I was the student and I did not even know it.
- In a new client meeting: which one am I? I need to listen and serve and not focus on what I am going to get out of the relationship.
- In a conversation with my wife: which one am I? Should I serve or listen? As long as I pick one, I cannot go wrong.
The danger, and errors, will come from not being a true student and not being a true master. In every situation, you must either listen intently or you must serve intentionally.
Be the student. Be the master. Don’t die in the middle.