The Best Teacher is a Student

Often, the best teacher is a student.

Of course great teachers open us up to ourselves. Their observations and their wisdom enable them to put before us our own failings, and their examples show us a path to improvement.

But great students can do the same. A simple question from a student often shines a surprising light on some gap in our own knowledge, and forces us to consider our opinions and beliefs more closely. This happened to me recently, about a Japanese text I’ve loved for decades.

There’s a passage in a book called Hagakure¬†(Hidden Leaves) wherein the author (Tsunetomo Yamamoto) recites four vows he has always maintained with himself:

  1. Always be of use
  2. Manifest compassion
  3. Honour your ancestors
  4. Never be out-done


I read¬†Hagakure in William Scott Wilson’s translation from Kodansha. I read it long before I’d ever gone to Japan, and much of it went over my head then. But the four vows have stuck with me ever since. They have proven solid principles for me to base my decisions on.

So I thought. Until one of my students asked me about that last one, “Never be out-done,’ and what it meant.

And I didn’t have a good answer.

I wanted it to mean something. I wanted to believe in Tsunetomo’s wisdom. But I didn’t have an interpretation of that statement that I could get behind. I couldn’t devote myself to the idea that I had to be better than everyone else, for example. Even my best skills, like quoting A. A. Milne, or admiring Spitfires — it would be trivial to find someone better at these things than me. I hadn’t even thought about it, however, until I was asked and couldn’t answer.

Then my wife and I were watching some behind-the-scenes material about some movie, and it made me very uncomfortable. Not the content itself, but the images of people being creative, building something out of their love and enthusiasm. That night, I really wanted to be creating, rather than watching others be creative. I struggled with a sense of inadequacy — these people were doing such amazing stuff, and here was I, just sitting on the couch watching them.

Watching them out-do me. In that moment, I had my answer. I am out-done when I react to other people’s efforts with despair and surrender. But if I instead take their example as inspiration to myself, as a new target for me to shoot for, then I cannot be out-done.

It’s got nothing to do with who is better. There will always be someone better than me, in every possible arena. But “Never be out-done” doesn’t mean “Be the best” — it means responding to another’s excellence with the determination to strive just as hard as they. The outcome may depend on factors I can’t control. I may not be as skilled as others. But I can always choose to apply myself positively. I can choose to never be out-done.

A statement I’d accepted without even really thinking about for decades suddenly has all-new meaning and potency for me, because of a student’s question. If a teacher had come along and lectured me about it, I doubt I would have had such a moment of understanding and inspiration.


Photo by Giuseppe Quattrone