Quotes can be a great source of inspiration. They can also be used in coaching to convey concepts, start thought-provoking conversations, and introduce powerful questions. In today’s Insight article, we analyze the quote “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear…” We discuss the origins of the saying, potential applications, and powerful questions that can be used in coaching conversations.
“The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery.” - Mark Van Doren
Quote or proverb?
Some attribute this quote to Lao Tzu’s book Tao Te Ching. However, this concept or quote is not apparent in Tao Te Ching’s English translation. Some say this quote is attributed to Buddha or a Zen proverb, however evidence for this claim is nonexistent (Popik, 2013). Furthermore, there have been many different paraphrased versions of this quote. One of those comes from the 1880s in a religious text by Mabel Collins’ “Light on the Path.” Collins states that “for when the disciple is ready, the master is ready also” (Bodhipaksa, 2013). Collins’ writing is part of Theosophical literature, a movement that sought to combine eastern religious traditions and western mysticism (Bodhipaksa, 2013), founded by Madame Blavatsky and others in 1875 (Stenudd, 2020). However, it has been reported that Madame Blavatsky had a habit of plagiarism. Since the source of this statement has no concrete original author, we choose to refer to this statement as an aphorism or proverb (Bodhipaksa, 2013 & Grothe, n.d.).
There’s more to it
Some sources add an additional section to this saying: “When the student is truly ready the teacher will disappear" (Stenudd, 2020). This section is closely related to a quote from “Confucian Analects, Book XIX, where disciples of Confucius are speaking” which states (Stenudd, 2020): Tsze-hsiâ said, 'The officer, having discharged all his duties, should devote his leisure to learning. The student, having completed his learning, should apply himself to be an officer.'
“Whoso neglects learning in his youth, loses the past and is dead for the future.” - Euripides
The aphorism, “When the student is ready the teacher will appear. When the student is truly ready the teacher will disappear,” brings forth two key concepts.
“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” - Benjamin Franklin
In order for a student to learn and develop, they must be “ready.” The teacher cannot teach them to be “ready,” instead, it is up to the student to decide and commit to readiness. Furthermore, there is a difference between being “ready” and being “truly ready.” When a student is “truly ready,” they have no need for the teacher and can then begin to apply the knowledge and concepts taught by the teacher on their own. For example, consider standardized tests and schooling. A child must be “ready” for 4th grade by completing 3rd grade and having a willingness to learn. They are “truly ready” when they take a standardized test without the presence of a teacher’s advice or assistance. In this instant, the student is “truly ready” to apply all that they have learned to the task at hand.
“Learning is not the product of teaching. Learning is the product of the activity of learners.” - John Holt
The role of a teacher
This aphorism also gives us insight into the role of a teacher. They are not meant to coddle the student so that the student is dependent on their advice. When a student is “truly ready” they “disappear” allowing them to test their own skills and knowledge because they are “truly ready” for the challenge. A teacher is not meant to be a crutch. Instead, they are meant to be a springboard, enhancing learning, increasing skills, challenging thought processes, and increasing the success of their students.
These two concepts of required readiness and the role of a teacher can be directly applied to the executive coaching relationship. Consider the following.
“My best skill was that I was coachable. I was a sponge and aggressive to learn.” - Michael Jordan
The readiness of an executive
In order for an executive to receive any benefit from executive coaching, he or she must be ready and willing to learn, change their perspective, challenge their ideas, and potentially change their behaviors. Some call this an individual’s “coachability.” Coachable, or “ready,” executives take responsibility for their actions, are willing to sacrifice some of their time for coaching and personal preparation before coaching, they are “open to reflect on questions that push them into real change,” and see coaching as a resource that helps their development (Mitchell, 2019). Clearly, being a “ready” executive coaching client is a personal decision that can only be carried out by the one being coached.
Consider the following questions that can gauge how “ready” an executive coaching client is for their coaching session.
Are you willing to change your behaviors, beliefs, or perspectives as you learn?
What does being coachable mean to you? Would you consider yourself to be coachable?
Are you ready for executive coaching? What makes you ready?
“Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterward” - Vern Law
The support of an executive coach
Each time an executive leaves their coaching session, they test if they are “truly ready” for the goals and challenges they discussed with their coach. An executive coach does not primarily give advice or make decisions for a client. Instead, they teach the executive to the point of being “truly ready” and “disappear” thereafter, ultimately allowing the executive to make their own decisions, have their own learning moments, and test their own skills.
An executive coach is not dependent on their coach, but instead is encouraged, challenged, and enlightened by their coach. While the teacher may be present for a test, their advice and assistance “disappears.”
In the same way, executive coaches allow their clients to test their knowledge, beliefs, ideas, and behaviors without their advice or assistance. However, when the executive reaches out to their coach for perspective or insight, an executive coach is ready and willing to ask powerful questions that reveal the genuine desires, goals, and ambitions of an executive.
Consider the following questions that address the moments when the coach “disappears” and the client’s readiness is tested.
What goals did you set for yourself after our last meeting? Did you accomplish these? Why or why not?
What do you attribute your success/failure to?
Do you believe that you were “truly ready” for the challenges you faced since our last meeting? Why or why not?
The main takeaway
From this quote, we learn that the teacher and the student both play intentional roles in the learning process. The student must be ready to learn. The teacher must teach. When the student is truly ready to apply their new knowledge, skills, or abilities the teacher must “disappear,” allowing the student to learn their own lessons and test their own abilities.
These lessons can be directly applied to executive coaching. The executive must be ready, coachable, and willing to learn. The executive coach must refrain from giving advice and allow executives to learn from their own choices, mistakes, and challenges.
As a coach do you “disappear” when your clients are “truly ready?” Do you examine if your new coaching clients are “ready” for executive coaching? How do you help your clients be “truly ready” for the challenges ahead of them?
“Develop a passion for learning. If you do, you will never cease to grow.” - Anthony J. D’Angelo
Bodhipaksa. (2013, March 16). "when the student is ready the teacher will appear.". Fake Buddha Quotes. Retrieved December 2, 2021, from https://fakebuddhaquotes.com/when-the-student-is-ready-the-teacher-will-appear/
Grothe, M. (n.d.). Dr. Mardy’s Dictionary of Metaphorical Quotations. Dr. Mardy. https://www.drmardy.com/dmdmq/
Lao-tzu. (600 BC approx.). Tao Te Ching. Translation by J.H. Mcdonald in 1996.
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Aphorism. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/aphorism#other-words
Mitchell, M. (2019, July 17). Council post: The best executive coaching clients demonstrate these four behaviors. Forbes. Retrieved December 2, 2021, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2019/07/17/the-best-executive-coaching-clients-demonstrate-these-four-behaviors/?sh=5190d3074dbb
Popik, B. (2013, March 29). Barry Popik. The Big Apple. Retrieved December 2, 2021, from https://www.barrypopik.com/index.php/new_york_city/entry/when_the_student_is_ready_the_teacher_will_appear/
Stenudd, S. (2020, September 22). Fake Lao Tzu Quote "When the student...". Taoistic. Retrieved from https://www.taoistic.com/fake-laotzu-quotes/fake-laotzu-quote-When_the_student_is_ready_the_teacher_will_appear.htm
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