Monthly Archives: June 2014

#8: Teachers, Coaches, and Mentors

We have all had teachers, some good and some bad. If we have played sports, we have had coaches. And if we are lucky, we have had mentors. These three groups play important but different roles in our lives.

It is the job of a teacher to transmit information to a student. It might be information about science, sailing, or sewing. A good teacher will use a variety of techniques to accomplish this task.

Some teachers are advocates of what has been called the milkman theory of teaching. Allow me to explain. Until the 1960s, people in many parts of America had milk delivered to their door. The deliveries were made early in the day, when it was still cool outside. Consequently, it was important for the milkman to make his deliveries as quietly as he could: wake people up, and he would lose customers.

A teacher who practices the milkman theory believes his job is to “deliver the milk” without waking anyone up—that is, to transmit information to students without also trying to transform them as human beings.

Coaches will necessarily play the role of teacher: a swimming coach will, for example, teach proper swimming technique along with strategies for racing. But a good coach will also do something most teachers don’t: she will try to get into an athlete’s head in order to improve his performance. This might mean praising an athlete, but it might also include taunting him.

A good coach realizes that if an athlete thinks he can’t do something, it pretty much guarantees that he can’t; if, however, an athlete thinks he can do something, it dramatically increases his chances of doing it. Consequently, one of the primary jobs of a coach is to open the athlete’s mind to possibilities. In the process of doing so, the coach will reveal much to the athlete that the athlete never knew about himself.

But a coach, after implanting a dream in an athlete, won’t allow him to spend his days dreaming; she will make very clear the price that must be paid for the athlete to achieve that dream. Besides learning how to play a sport, a well-coached athlete will gain some very important traits, including self-discipline and tenacity.

Although a teacher who operates under the milkman theory will not coach her students in the manner just described, other teachers will happily do so: they will try to get inside the head of a student in order to get the most out of him. This means that the line that divides teacher from coach can be blurry.

This brings us to mentors. The relationship between mentor and mentee—yes, mentee is a real word—is different from the relationship between teacher and student, or coach and athlete. For one thing, the relationship between mentor and mentee won’t be “contractual,” in the sense that both parties must agree to it before it can take place. All you have to do to make someone your mentor is decide that you are going to observe him carefully and maybe ask him questions, in an attempt to become in some respects more like him. Furthermore, whereas a teacher or coach will require you to complete specific tasks—such as writing an essay or running wind sprints—a mentor won’t.

A 21st century Stoic will constantly be on the lookout for mentors. She will be searching, in particular, for people who seem to have some important aspect of life figured out. They might, for example, have insights into how to deal with other people or how to deal with adversity. On encountering such an individual, the Stoic will spend time with him, so she can watch and learn.

Many people, rather than seeking mentors, deny their existence: they are convinced that they have figured out everything they need to know to live a good life. A 21st century Stoic, by way of contrast, will always regard herself as a work in progress, meaning that she will be perfectly willing to look to others for insights on living. It is a frame of mind, I should add, that dramatically increases her chances of living a good life.

#7: On Becoming a Connoisseur of Everything

In my previous posting, I distinguished between gourmands, gourmets, and connoisseurs.

Gourmands have allowed themselves to become enslaved by their desire for food. It is a fate that a 21st century Stoic will want to avoid. Gourmets have adopted such high standards that they will be displeased by most of the food and drink they consume. They are therefore likely to spend their life in a state of self-induced misery. It is another fate that a 21st century Stoic will want to avoid.

Although the word connoisseur can be used as a synonym for gourmet, its root meaning is simply someone who is knowledgeable about something. A wine connoisseur knows all about wine.

Knowing about something can increase the pleasure we derive from it. This is certainly true of wine, but it is also true, as I argued in my previous posting, of a simple almond. The more you know about the almond and the process by which it came to you, the more delight you can take in consuming it. Indeed, if you are mindful of all the human effort it took to get the almond to you, the act of consuming it can itself seem like a minor miracle.

This thinking led me to the conclusion that one goal of a 21st century Stoic will be to become a connoisseur not just of wine or almonds, but of everything.

The ancient Stoics, besides taking an interest in philosophies for living, took an interest in physics—in what we today would refer to as natural science. And why would a philosopher study science? In large part because doing so can dramatically increase our appreciation of the universe in which we live.

Consider the sky. It is remarkably easy to take for granted, but it is something to be very grateful for. It is not only blue, but a beautiful shade of blue that changes subtly depending on where on earth you are, your altitude, what time of day it is, and what season it is.

Realize that the sky didn’t have to be blue. In fact, in our corner of the universe, blue skies are an anomaly.

Because it lacks an atmosphere, the moon has a black sky, which is the same as saying that it has no sky at all. Mars has an atmosphere and therefore has a sky, but it is not blue; windblown dust makes it butterscotch in color. Titan, a moon of Saturn, has an orange sky. Venus’s sky is red-orange in color, but because Venus’s atmosphere is so dense, you wouldn’t get much chance to enjoy it before its enormous pressure crushed you.

If what you like is butterscotch, orange, or red-orange skies, you can see them here on earth. For a butterscotch sky, you will have to wait for a dust storm, and for an orange or red-orange sky, you will have to be outside at sunrise or sunset.

To find another blue sky in the Solar System, you would have to travel to Uranus or Neptune. It is a long trip to make, though, and these are very cold places. Plan B for seeing a blue sky seems vastly preferable: simply walk to a nearby window.

Of course, if the day is cloudy, the blue sky will be obscured from your view, but then you will be treated to the spectacle of the clouds themselves. They come in a remarkable variety of shapes and sizes. (I myself am a particular fan of altocumulus clouds.) And of course, at sunrise and sunset, you will, on many days, be able to enjoy both clouds and the sky, in a mix of blue, white, red, pink, and orange.

All of this is spectacular, and it is completely free. It comes to us complements of the remarkable universe in which we find ourselves.

To be able to take full advantage of gifts like these, you will need to become knowledgeable about the world in which you live. You will need, that is, to become a connoisseur, not just of wine and almonds but of skies and clouds, paintings and poems, mountains and rivers, birds and trees—of as much as you can.

We are, as I said in my previous post, living in a garden of delight. To enjoy this garden, though, you will have to wake up, and you will have to keep your eyes open.