“The soul should always stand ajar, ready to welcome the ecstatic experience.”
– Emily Dickinson
IF THE SCHOOL OF GRACE had its own motto, it would surely be: “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” This ancient proverb appears in many spiritual texts written by Buddhists, Hindus, Taoists, Christians, and Theosophists, each of whom claim it as their own. It is a spiritual truth, a success mantra, that is practical and relevant to modern life, work, and relationships. It conveys great wisdom in a few words, and the closer you inspect the words the more wisdom you find. This proverb can teach us a lot about success.
“When the student is ready, the teacher appears” begins by affirming that everyone is a student. Albert Einstein called himself a pupil who wanted to know the thoughts of God. Leonardo da Vinci said he learned everything from the school of nature. Thomas Edison said he studied the laws of life. He said, “I know this world is ruled by Infinite Intelligence. It required Infinite Intelligence to create it, and it requires Infinite Intelligence to keep it on its course. Everything that surrounds us—everything that exists—proves that there are Infinite Laws behind it. There can be no denying this fact. It is mathematical in its precision.”1
Success requires each of us to be a student of life and a student for life. Learning is living; there is no difference. We are all students of life, students of happiness, students of love, and students of success. When we learn well, we live better. Success is continuous learning. This applies to the modern world of work as well. Arie de Geus, the author of The Living Company, has pioneered the model of “the learning organization.” He teaches that success is a result of learning. He also states: “The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.”2
“When the student is ready, the teacher appears” affirms that “readiness” is the key. Note that it does not say, “When the student is lucky, the teacher appears.” Readiness is the ability to be present in the moment called “now” and to receive every precious gift that is here. Readiness is the willingness to engage fully with what is happening and let every small detail speak to you, teach you, and lead you. Readiness is the ability to be spontaneously available for unplanned opportunities—not to be too busy, on autopilot, or preoccupied. Readiness is the willingness to drop your old learning and let grace inspire you with better ideas.
In business today the conversation is about diversity and inspiration. Tom Peters, in The Circle of Innovation, says that “we are all Michelangelos” and that our daily task is to keep opening to new levels of success. Peters is a student of possibility. He reveres the art of the possible. He quotes another student of possibility, Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, who says, “I make myself a relentless architect of the possibilities of human beings.”3 Readiness creates possibilities.
“When the student is ready, the teacher appears” affirms that there is a teacher for all of us. If you accept that everyone is your teacher, then everyone can teach you something. A student of success might reflect deeply on what his parents have taught him about success, both positive and negative. He might even initiate a conversation with them about success. A student of success might ask his partner and friends, “What is success?” He may also examine carefully what his children are teaching him about success. Every relationship is a curriculum, and the lessons we learn in relationships can create more happiness and success.
The “teacher” can appear in many different forms. One of my greatest teachers is a book called A Course in Miracles.4 I study this book every day, and it inspires my work and life. A Course in Miracles encourages its students to cultivate appreciation for every person, every moment, and every thing. A central lesson is, “All things are lessons God would have me learn.” Your teacher may appear as a book, a film, or a beautiful piece of music. Patience is also a teacher, just as stress is a teacher, failure is a teacher, your cat is a teacher, illness is a teacher, and so on. Grace moves in mysterious ways.
“When the student is ready, the teacher appears” is a categorical statement. It does not say “sometimes appears.” Also, the word is appears, not arrives. This is an important distinction because arrives suggests that the teacher is currently somewhere else, but appears implies that the teacher is already here waiting to be noticed. Carl Jung had a Latin saying inscribed over the front door of his house: Vocatus Atque non Vocatus Deus Aderit. It translates as “Bidden or not bidden, God is present.” Grace is present wherever it is made welcome.
- The Forbes Book of Business Quotations, edited by Ted Goodman, page 453, Konemann (1997).
- The Learning Paradox by Jim Harris, page 1, Macmillan Canada (1998). See also The Living Company by Arie de Geus, Nicholas Brealey Publishing Ltd. (1999).
- The Circle of Innovation by Tom Peters, page 133, Hodder & Stoughton (1997).
- A Course in Miracles, Foundation for Inner Peace, 2nd Edition (1975).
Robert Holden, Ph.D., is the Director of The Happiness Project and Success Intelligence. Robert coaches leaders in business, education, politics and healthcare.