Greatest Teachers

Your Greatest Teachers Might be Dead

Nearly all great minds have one thing in common; they had great mentors.

I’ve learned that if you don’t have any great teachers in your life, that doesn’t mean you should sit around and wait for one to find you. You need to be willing to seek them out. Fortunately, you have an endless number of great teachers to choose from. That is, if you accept that many of these great teachers will be dead.

Many of the greatest thinkers made a habit of documenting their discoveries. So while they are no longer alive, their words are still here, and in them their wisdom.

But before seeking out a great teacher, you first need to…

Identify your problem

What do you need to work on? If you really want to improve, you’ll need to accept criticism. Ask experts in your field for their opinion. Tell them you want their honest opinion, no holds barred. If you don’t know an expert, ask someone you know that’s reasonably intelligent. Don’t be defensive. If they’re giving you honest advice, even if it’s negative, that’s because they care. Recognize that and accept their critique as a gift.

Now that’s you’ve identified your problem, it’s time to seek out your mentor. Do some research, the initial time spent on this will pay off in the long run. It’s better to ask for the best person someone knows on a specific subject, then to blindly fumble for books at your local Barnes and Noble.

If you don’t know someone that can personally recommend an author for you, look at a book review site. Go to your local library and ask your librarian what the most popular books are on your subject. They can often see which books are checked out most frequently. Check out Amazon and find out what books are getting rave reviews and which ones people are making people scream bloody murder.

Now you’ve identified your problem, the question is…

How do you spot a great teacher?

One of the greatest teachers I’ve encountered is Alan Watts. If you’re not familiar with Mr. Watts, he was a prolific translator of Eastern Religion and philosophy. He adapted many Eastern wisdom traditions into a frame of reference Westerners could understand. I found Alan Watts when I was looking for a mentor that could elucidate and explain to me the meaning behind Buddhist and Taoist teachings. Alan Watts died in 1968, but many of his lectures and words were recorded (either on the page or in audio) and are still popular to this day. It was more than 35 years after his death that I discovered his work. I learned a great deal from him because I resonated with him deeply, it was as if we were in the same room.

What made Alan Watts such a great teacher for me is that he could translate seemingly paradoxical and perplexing ideas into concrete examples. The question is, are their common traits of great teachers that can help us spot them? Here are a few I’ve found:

Innovation drives them. They are willing to change their process to become better communicators. They are not afraid of criticism and use it to their advantage. They don’t get defensive.

They meet you on your level. Great teachers know that meeting their students on the same level makes them more accessible. You’re more likely to learn better from someone whom you can consider your equal rather than a mysterious deity.

Passion is their fuel for teaching. A passion and deep desire to constantly learn more about their subject drives them. They are able to leverage their passion in a way that inspires and motivates you. Their enthusiasm is contagious.

They’re concrete. They move abstract ideas into concrete examples.

They overcome the knowledge gap. A great teacher knows that their well of knowledge is likely much deeper than that of their pupils. They are able to overcome this knowledge gap by building on existing schemas.

Remember, be true to yourself. Just because someone has 20+ years of experience on you in your field, doesn’t mean their word is untouchable. What worked for them may not work for you. But at least now you should have some clarity on where you need to improve and how to go about it. The best way to learn is to find someone who’s done exactly what you’re trying to do.

Who knows, a library card could be worth a thousand teachers….


Jonathan is the author of the blog He writes about finding Authenticity, Clarity and Balance in all aspects of living. His articles include Positivity Demystified and 33 of Life’s Most Powerful Lessons.


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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