The unlikely teacher is one of my favorite story themes, partially because I’ve been fortunate to have had wonderful, unlikely teachers in my own life, but also because it suggests pathways and opportunities for us to transform our lives and businesses.
Remember the Star Wars movie when Luke Skywalker crash-landed on Degobah, the swamp planet? He encounters a small green elf who answers his questions with annoying subject-and-predicate-swapped sentences.
Yoda: I am wondering: Why are you here?
Luke: I am looking for someone.
Yoda: Looking? Found someone you have I would say? (laughs)
Luke: (sarcastically under his breath) Right!
Yoda: Help you I can. Yes. Hmmm.
Luke: I don’t think so. I’m looking for a great warrior.
Yoda: Oh, a great warrior! (laughs) Wars not make one great.
(Yoda begins to poke through Luke’s gear and eat his food.)
Luke: Hey, that’s my dinner!
(Yoda mishandles Luke’s equipment and steals Luke’s light. R2D2 tries to wrestle it back.)
Luke: (Trying hard to be polite) Move along little fellow; we have a lot of work to do.
Yoda: No. No. Stay and help you I will. Find your friend.
Luke: (annoyed) I’m not looking for a friend; I’m looking for a Jedi master.
Yoda: (sounds impressed) Mmm, a Jedi Master? You seek Yoda.
Luke: (suddenly more interested) You know him?
Yoda: Mmm. Take you to him I will.
Luke ultimately learns that his obnoxious companion is none other than the Jedi Master himself. Those of us in the audience are equally surprised. Like Luke, we were expecting some white-robed Darth Vader alter ego.
I had an unlikely teacher in my own life. When I was 18 years old, I got a summer job working on a unique art project on Miami’s Biscayne Bay. One night I worked alongside Trimaran John, a scruffy, red-bearded character who lived on a sailboat in Miami’s free anchorage. As John drank way too much Old Milwaukee, he told me sailing stories. Night after night, I’d work with John and hear about faraway places and harrowing true-life adventures. There we sat—a private prep-school graduate with a thirst for adventure and a boat bum with a thirst for beer. Because of that meeting, I eventually bought a small sailboat, fixed her up, moved aboard, and sailed thousands of miles in search of my own adventure stories.
APPLYing the “Unlikely Teacher” theme
In my work as a book coach, I was presented with an opportunity to assist an elderly Indian Muslim psychiatrist with his memoir. How am I going to help this man connect and engage with readers? I thought. His life is so different from mine. Basheer told me stories of how he had worked as a doctor on a ship that carried pilgrims to Mecca. He told me of the passengers’ dedication to their journeys and their faith. He explained the values behind that pilgrimage—that Muslims can only undertake the pilgrimage if their debts are settled and they’ve left enough money behind to provide for their families if they don’t return safely. He described how the pilgrims exchanged their ‘civilian’ clothes—the ones that identified them as laborers, merchants, and professionals—for simple, white, identical robes, and how big it felt to share a deep, spiritual connection to God standing in an endless sea of white.
My client wanted me to help him connect with readers from diverse spiritual backgrounds. He understood that some would rely on the Q’ran for spiritual guidance, while others would rely on the Old and New Testaments. As an Indian, he understood that his Hindu and Buddhist friends derived their faith from an entirely different set of stories and deities. Others were atheists and agnostics. His goal was not to convert anyone to his faith, but to suggest that spirituality has a role to play in everyone’s life—as it had in his. Through his stories, my client became an unlikely teacher—both to me and to his readers—one who promotes understanding, peace, and tolerance to everyone.
The Unlikely Leader
“The unlikely leader” story is a variant of “the unlikely teacher,” but it works the same way. James Garfield never sought the Presidency, but the votes within the nominating convention were deadlocked. Someone suggested Garfield, a groundswell of support grew, and he became President of the United States in 1831.
Many of us focus too much on connecting likely students with likely teachers and leaders. Single people look for partners with similar interests. Salespeople look for customers who match the “target market profile.” Readers buy books about subjects they’re already interested in. Companies hire the candidate with the longest résumé. We seek advice from “subject matter experts.” Practical reasons to pursue those directions are endless, but those connections often lead to boring stories, meaningless work experiences, and lost opportunities.
The teachers and leaders who inspire us the most are often the ones we aren’t expecting.
How many stories have you heard where a single person who’s burned out on dating meets their life match under the most unexpected circumstances?
Have you ever encountered a product and thought, I don’t think the company had me in mind when they designed it, but I sure do love it?
Have you ever found yourself standing out in front when leaders or volunteers are requested because everyone stepped back but you? Many of the people who actively seek leadership positions are the ones least qualified for the job. Some of the best leaders seek that status reluctantly.
Virtuosos and savants often make terrible teachers. Some of the most talented artists and musicians don’t know how they do what they do—they just do it.
The best job candidate might not be the one whose ten-page résumé is packed with awards and accomplishments. The world is full of obnoxious, talented people. Who do you want to spend forty hours of your life collaborating with every week?
How can you find unlikely teachers? Volunteer at a nursing home. Take a class in a subject you know nothing about. Join a social media group for jazz musicians or watchmakers or engineers or antique collectors, lurk for a while, and look for connections. Or just open your mind to the possibility that that person over there could have something surprising and valuable to share with you.
How can you become an unlikely teacher? Think deeply about your products and services. Consider who might benefit from them who has no idea they need them. Are you a member of a group or professional association? Run for the board at the next election, even if you don’t feel qualified or that you’re enough of an ‘insider.’ Ask questions. Innovate. You may very well do a better job than the ‘old guard’ who have run things the same way for years. Mentor a student or become an inspiring parent. Reach out to that person over there. Start a conversation and then listen.
Stories—regardless of theme—are the foundations upon which we build our life’s search for meaning. A business plan or a social strategy is just another story. Why not make it a meaningful one? Open yourself to new teachers, leaders, connections, and opportunities. Find new ways to share your insights and add value to the lives of others. Take conscious control over the authorship of your destiny. Seek out and become “the unlikely teacher.”