Imagine being hired to build a bridge across the Hudson River. You're supplied with all the tools, equipment and manpower – and offered a whopping $10 million dollar fee. But there's one condition: You are the only engineer allowed on the job. Now of course you don't know anything about bridge building, and it took mankind thousands of years to master these techniques. So how will you accomplish the goal?"
"Well, I plan to visit different bridges. I'll look at them and walk across them. And then I'll try some trial-and-error, perhaps sticking some beams into the dirt."
Of course this is ridiculous. You'd spend the next 50 years experimenting and still get nowhere. The more intelligent approach is to say: "Give me a year at M.I.T. I'll study hard, hire private tutors and read every engineering text I can get my hands on. Then I'll come back and build that bridge."
Nobody undertakes an important project without being trained. So why do we go ahead and choose a career, get married, and raise children – all without training? We defend ourselves with slogans like: "I'll play it by ear and work it out as I go." Then when things go wrong, we lick our wounds and start all over again. Is this any way to live?
Life is infinitely more complicated than bridge building. If you want to build a meaningful life, you need to find wise people and be ready for an intensive course of study.
Way #10 is b'shimush chachamim – literally "serving the wise." This means to: a) learn from him, and b) assist him. To succeed in life, you have to desire wisdom, and pursue it with enthusiasm. Hang around wise people and see how they apply wisdom to living. Ask a lot of questions, and keep asking as long as they're willing to give you the time.
Wisdom is the most important thing in the world; the key to a meaningful life. You'd never dream of using trial and error in the operating room. So why leave your personal life to guesswork?
Learn About Life
Human beings like independence. We hate to admit that we need others. Most people would rather learn from their own mistakes, than learn from others. We imagine we'll just "figure it all out" as we go along. "I know I'm smart. I can work it out."
Life is too short for this. We're bound to make mistakes anyways. So why add those we could otherwise prevent? As the saying goes: "A fool learns from his own mistakes, a wise person learns from the mistakes of others."
But we see people doing this all the time. College students travel across Europe "to learn about life." They may meet a lot of people walking down the street, but there are much more efficient ways to learn about life. If you're serious, you'll make a plan and get someone to teach you.
Imagine you could go back in time 10 years and teach yourself an important lesson. Would you have listened? Would it be a mistake not to listen?
Now go talk to someone 10 years older. Ask him: "Did you ever make a mistake?" He certainly has learned something about life. Does that make sense?
Realize that you have a built-in resource of wisdom: your parents. They're not the old fogies you might think they are. As Mark Twain used to say, "When I went to college, my father was a fool. When I came back four years later, I was amazed how much wiser he'd become!"
Do you want to give your parents some pleasure? Ask them for advice on an important issue – marriage, career. That will make them really happy. And on the wisdom scale, you can achieve what it might take 20 years on your own.
As a way to get started in this process, think about the following question: "If I could meet anyone alive today, who would it be, and what would I ask?"
Now work backwards and find someone who can help approximate your ultimate goal. And don't stop pursuing wisdom until you find it.
Assist the Wise Person
If the president of the United States came to visit, you'd get up, bring him a drink, and be ready to help him in any way possible. You'd ask for advice and listen attentively. (Even if you voted against him – it's still the president of the United States!)
We should do the same for a wise person. Stand up when he enters the room, help him, pay attention to him. As the Sages say: "Serving a wise person is even greater than learning Torah" – more than any lecture or textbook.
Be an apprentice. Follow your mentor around. Accompany him to meetings and on errands. Observe every nuance. You can read all about it in a textbook, but the best education is to watch an expert work.
Serving your mentor makes you closer to him. You will be alert and eager to hear his advice. You'll have more respect for his wisdom. You'll understand what makes your mentor a cut above the rest.
Above all, you will learn and you will grow.
Be Prepared to Absorb Wisdom
If you learned everything from everyone, you'd be one of the wisest people in the world. But that's not practical, so you have to prioritize your "wisdom needs."
Begin with a list of important life topics like marriage and child raising. Then add more global issues.
Now go shopping with your list. Ask people: "Do you have expertise in this, or do you know someone who can help?" Carry your list around with you, so you'll always be prepared to ask the wise person.
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- What does it mean to be a "good person?"
- How can I be kind to others without being taken advantage of?
- How can I control my anger?
- What is the key to greatness?
- How can I maximize my time?
- What makes a marriage successful?
- How do I use my full potential?
- How do I break out of laziness?
- How do I get more joy in living?
- How can I have more patience with my children?
- How can I be a better son/daughter?
- What are my responsibilities to my community?
- What is the meaning of existence?
- What does God want from me?
- Is there an afterlife?
- How do we achieve world peace?
Choose a Teacher for Life
In grammar school, you had a new teacher every year. Just when you became familiar with one teacher, it was time to move up a grade and meet the next one.
As adults, we need to take a different approach. Ideally, you should find one mentor to use throughout your life.
To find the right mentor, don't just take the nearest expert, the one on the block. "Shop" intelligently. Get references. Check credentials. See if he lives honestly and consistently with his knowledge. Test his wisdom with questions. Find out who his own mentors are. Make sure he's part of a respected community.
The key to a good mentor is to develop strong trust and communication. Criticism is difficult to swallow, but it's a less bitter pill when it comes from someone you trust, someone who has insight and wisdom, someone who you believe is only out for your own good. Choose someone who understands you, and who knows your background and family history.
Above all, make sure the mentor is available. Because you can have the greatest mentor in the world, but if you can't speak with him/her, what good is it?
If you can't find the right person, make an "interim mentor" to bounce ideas off of and be accountable to. King Solomon was the wisest person who ever lived, yet he still had a mentor. Tradition says that as long as Solomon's mentor was alive, he never made a mistake; once the mentor died, Solomon erred. Having an objective advisor is so crucial that even if you choose someone who is "less wise" than yourself, it's still worth it.
Always be on the lookout and don't give up until you find the right one.
The Loyalty Factor
Human beings tend to hold onto what we "know" and defend our position. Wisdom requires change, moving out of our comfort zone. Too often we avoid the pain and drop the wisdom altogether.
Resist this temptation. In choosing a mentor, find someone who will challenge you and encourage you to become great. Don't choose someone who allows you to maintain your weaknesses and prejudices.
Be loyal to your mentor. Then you're less prone to shop around every time he suggests something you don't like. By shopping, you'll end up with someone who is less challenging to your prejudices. If you have a good doctor, you rely on his opinion. If you have a good mentor, stick with him. Don't shop around for answers that you like.
Tell him, "If you see me doing anything wrong, point it out. I will promise to pay strict attention." Then, if he says that you're making a certain mistake – for example, being counter-productive – you have to listen. Even if you disagree, you are not allowed to dismiss what he says as "You go your way and I'll go mine." You owe your teacher respect. You've accepted that responsibility.
This doesn't mean you follow the mentor blindly. You don't have to agree, but you are obligated to try and understand his position. Work through the issues together. Figure out who's making a mistake. Tell him: "Either convince me or agree with me."
That is the power of having a mentor, because the message eventually penetrates your wall of defense. You will overcome some bad mistakes.
Furthermore, we humans are very subjective about ourselves. We twist reality and can't see ourselves. A mentor gives you objective feedback. He reduces your capacity to rationalize. You feel accountable and think twice before you act. "What would my mentor say if I did this?" If you can't come up with a good answer, don't do it.
To get started, go ask three people: "What do you recommend I do in this situation?" Get some advice, and if you disagree, argue it out with them, respectfully. Try it.
Why is "Honoring the Wise Person" a Way to Wisdom?
- To learn about life, you need a mentor, someone to guide you on a rational and consistent path.
- Human beings are subjective. We need someone to help give us objectivity.
- Independence is human nature, but if you don't moderate it, it will stand in the way of your growth.
- Be a student of truth. The most destructive disease is ignorance – not being connected with reality.
- Get in touch with those who understand life and pump them for information.
- Go find a teacher now.
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Way #10: Honor The Wise Person