Imagine that life is lived upon a circular track. It’s not a race, of course, but rather, an event wherein every participant uses this opportunity to better themselves. Here, we seek to become more physically and mentally fit. We seek to improve our running, jogging, and walking techniques, and to learn proper pacing. The more we learn, and the harder we work at it, the faster and more steadily we are able to proceed around the track. Eventually, we decide we’ve had enough, and walk off, hopefully better than we were when we stepped on.
There’s a huge throng of people on this track–everyone who’s alive right now. It’s crowded, and we often bump into each other, sometimes becoming annoyed or aggravated. Still, we do our best to see what’s ahead, and to respect and travel peaceably with those around us. Some people on the track have gotten into better shape than others. Some have learned pacing better than others. The most sought-after teachers are those who have learned how to better themselves and those around them at a great rate.
The Runner In Front
About 50 feet ahead of you is a runner who’s moving a bit faster than you are. He appears to be confident and in decent shape. Naturally, you assume that this person would be good to learn from, so you shout ahead, “Please share your understanding with me, so I can go faster, too!”
The runner glances back, and, seeing that you’re moving slower than he is, begins to tell you everything he’s learned, since–obviously–he must have some insights that you haven’t gathered, yet.
The Runner Behind
About 50 feet behind you is a runner who’s moving at about the same pace as you. She’s in decent shape, but seems to have little or no interest in going faster. Consequently, you shout back to her, “Let me show you how you can go faster!”
Assuming that, because you’re in front, you must be more skilled than her, she accepts your offer and tentatively begins trying to emulate you.
Teacher vs. Student
The reality is, however, that the person in front of you is actually almost an entire track-length behind you; and the person behind you is almost an entire track length ahead of you!
The person in front has no grasp of pacing, and keeps urging you to run faster; and the only reason you can see him is because he keeps trying to run faster than he has strength, and has repeatedly fallen down due to exhaustion. At the moment you see him, he’s desperately trying to catch up, again, still confident that if he only runs fast enough, he’ll be able to re-join his friends.
The person behind you has no immediate interest in running faster because she’s found her rhythm: by running just a hair’s breadth faster than you are–imperceptible to the untrained eye–she’s able to consistently out-pace everybody else on the track. She doesn’t care who’s going faster or slower, but is still keenly interested in improving herself, and is willing to take advice from anyone who gives it, in hopes of learning something new.
So, whose lesson do you really want to learn? Chances are, you can learn valuable lessons from both people, but you’ll only be able to run alongside one of them for any noteworthy distance, before the other vanishes from sight.
The Lesson This Track Teaches
Sometimes, we latch onto the teachings of those who appear to be more wise than we are, because we desperately want to speed ahead and improve ourselves as fast as we possibly can. In doing so, we primarily rely upon our perceptions of social currency, and trust that whomever has the most (according to what we presently value) must be the person(s) most fit to teach us. We look to gurus, priests, PhDs, celebrities, popular friends, and others, and do everything in our power to emulate them. Simultaneously, we dismiss or seek to teach–but not learn from–those who, by our current standards of perceived social currency, seem to have nothing to teach us. Only after we’ve spent years, or even a lifetime following those who are more clueless than we are, do we sometimes come to realize that we’ve been valuing the wrong things.
So, here’s the lesson:
Sometimes, the person who’s the least attractive to our current sensibilities is the person most fit to teach us the things we desperately want or need to know.