There are many ways to look at how people become experts in a particular field. One approach is to consider the five stages a person may go through along the way.
They start off by being a student. Aiming to pass on knowledge, they become a teacher and a consultant. Then comes the most dangerous phase. They may want to become a guru. Sometimes they move on, however, and become a sage. The guru wants followers, but the sage wants to give things away. Why? The sage realises they have almost gone a full circle and they are really a student.
Let’s explore these five stages.
1) Student and Teacher.
Imagine you want to explore a particular topic. You may want to learn about education, business, science, solving problems or whatever.
The first step is to become a student. What is your learning style? You may learn best by reading books, doing projects, sitting at the feet of experts or in some other way. As Jiddu Krishnamurti said: “The whole of life, from the moment you are born to the moment you die, is a process of learning.”
Different people learn in different ways. Willa Cather, the author, said: “There are some things you learn best in calm, and some in storm.” Matt Damon, the actor, highlighted the concentration required by saying: “If anybody wanted to photograph my life, they'd get bored in a day. 'Here’s Matt at home learning his lines. Here's Matt researching in aisle six of his local library. A few hours of that and they'd go home.” Whilst George Santayana said: “The wisest mind has something yet to learn.”
People also learn differently in different circumstances. But you may be able to see patterns in the way you learn. If so, try completing the following exercise.
“The best way to learn is to teach,” we are told. So sometimes it is a natural step from learning to teaching. Many educational models invite older students to teach younger ones. Paulo Freire’s work on spreading of literacy in poorer communities, for example, urged people to help each other through the philosophy of ‘each one, teach one’.
There are, of course, many approaches to education. Great educators start by clarifying the learner’s goals. They then encourage, educate and enable the person to achieve success. They aim to:
They encourage people to build on their strengths and manage the consequences of their weaknesses.
They educate by offering people offering knowledge, models and tools they can add to their repertoire.
They do whatever is required to enable people to achieve ongoing success
Some people go through the steps of being a student and teacher. They then go onto the next stages.
2) Consultant and Guru.
Consultancy has a mixed reputation. Over the years there has been a massive rise in services provided by various professional bodies. Whilst such services often provide ‘hands-on’ help, some also provide professional ‘consultancy’.
There are, of course, many different kinds of consultancy. Some people provide niche expertise; some provide ‘facilitative’ help. Anybody can call themselves a consultant. But the proof of the pudding is whether they get re-hired by clients.
People often move into consultancy after developing their ideas in a particular niche. Looking back at my own life, for example, I was asked to share the experiences that our staff had in running therapeutic communities.
Other people become consultants in their own fields of expertise. This may be surgery, architecture, engineering, risk assessment or whatever. As we know, however, some consultancy has the reputation being all ‘smoke and mirrors’.
Good consultants pass on their expertise in a way that helps their clients to succeed. David Maister’s book The Trusted Advisor identified what many consultants hope to become. Such advisors follow a certain path in their work. They start by clarifying the client’s need and then go through the following steps.
They start by focusing on the ‘What’. They identify the challenge and establish clarity – the real results the client wants to achieve. They then clarify the ‘controllables’ – the things the person can control in the situation.
They move onto the ‘How’. They explore the choices for tackling the challenge. They clarify the consequences of each option – the pluses and minuses involved. After considering these possibilities, they explore any other creative solutions.
* Concrete results.
They move onto the ‘When’. They help the client to settle on their conclusions. This involves the client deciding on the route or routes they want to follow towards achieving the goals. They then encourage the client to make clear working contracts. Finally, they enable them to do whatever is required to deliver concrete results.
Some people gain the reputation of being gurus in their field. This can be the most dangerous phase. In Eastern philosophy a guru is seen as a spiritual guide. Whilst they may have followers, such people aim to demonstrate kindness and humility. After all, they serve eternal principles. So they aim to enable people to find their own way to enlightenment.
Unfortunately the guru approach can become more personalised. Instead of focusing on the principles, students focus on the person. In the Western world, for example, some of the ‘new religions’ and ‘new psychologies’ revolve around the cult of personality. The guru is seen as a mini-god.
Some leaders renounce this interpretation, but others play on the status. They produce videos, tapes that highlight their name. They develop expensive training programmes that involve people going on multiple courses to understand the person’s teaching. Some even borrow techniques from brainwashing to recruit and keep people. Such gurus want followers and charge them heavily for the privilege.
During the 1960s there was much discussion around the theme of The Good Guru Guide. Some of the questions regarding a guru were these.
“Is the person kind? Are they generous? After being with them, do you feel more able to make your own decisions? Do you feel freer to shape your own future? Or have you been asked to sign up for more programmes with the promise that, one day, you will get enlightenment?”
This takes us to the next stage.
3) Sage – and Student again.
The guru often wants followers, but the sage wants to give things away. Sages are like good educators. Whilst able to share knowledge, they want people to make up their own minds in their own way.
Such people often embody the second simplicity. What does this mean?
During the early years a person may see things in simple terms. They believe in love, peace, beauty and building a better world. But then comes complexity. They go to work, enter university, write in long sentences, join big companies, incur debts and make compromises. They say: “Life is not that simple.” But then comes another shift, perhaps triggered by a crisis that clarifies what is important in life.
They move onto the second simplicity, which is a profound simplicity. A person may return to their original philosophy, but experience has brought wisdom.
The pains and pleasures of life bring an extra timbre to their voice. Speaking from the depths of their being, their words resonate more deeply. They are ‘real’, rather than in ‘role’. Such people have wisdom in their bones. They make complicated things simple. They pass on knowledge that is real, relevant and rewarding.
Sages remain humble. They do not see themselves as wise, not even for a moment. They feel part of a tradition, something greater than themselves. The sage realises that they will always be a student.
So it’s time to go around the circle again. They restart the journey and aim to help people along the way.