Learn from Everyone

I like to talk to homeless people. They always have good stories. Full of sorrow, full of regret, or full of joy, these people are closer to something we all have in us than those who walk around with clean clothes and money in their pockets. Even if it’s just a lesson in what not to do, something can be learned from each and every person you meet.

三人行,必有我師/sān rén xíng,bì yǒu wǒ shī:Among three travelers, there exists my teacher(s).

This chengyu come straight from Confucius himself. It’s pretty straightforward: a person can learn something from anybody and everybody. The formal translation for the whole passage is “The Master said, ‘When I walk along with two others, they may serve me as my teachers. I will select their good qualities and follow them, their bad qualities and avoid them.'” There is no assignment of moral value in the skill of learning from others, but rather a method through which one may further their own development as a human being.

That’s one of the cores of Confucian thought: the cultivation of one’s own humanity. Confucius said that in order to be an upright human, one must devote himself to knowledge and social harmony. Both of those concepts have changed and morphed over time, but their core is still there.

Really, what 三人行必有我師 is a lesson in humility. Confucius is one of the most revered historical figures in the world, and one of his core lessons is treat others as if you can learn something from them. That treatment requires understanding and respect, even of people whom seem like they might not have a whole lot of worth at first blush. To approach even a beggar or a prostitute as someone less than yourself would be a failure on your part, because you never know what lessons you’re going to learn until they are taught to you.

People learn things the hard way or the easy way, or they never learn. Any dismissal of potential teachers is a flat out failure as a student, and in the Confucian ethic, as a human. So talk to homeless people. You might learn something you didn’t know you had to.

Isaiah is a linguist, a student, and a musician. He likes whiskey and showtunes. Check out his music on Soundcloud or Bandcamp. His website is https://greatghouls.com, where he writes personal blogs that aren't too well thought out.

3 Comments

  1. Nick C Reply

    Heard about this principle years ago from The Fighter’s Mind by Sam Sheridan. It’s about his journey to learn the mental/psychological aspect of Fighting/competing from MMA coaches, fighters, Olympic wrestlers, & a super-marathon runner. This quote from Frank Shamrock (legendary pioneer of Mixed Martial Arts/former UFC champ) really sunk in for me a long time ago.

    “False ideas about yourself destroy you. For me, I always stay a student. That’s what martial arts are about, and you have to use that humility as a tool. You put yourself beneath someone you trust. That’s extremely useful.
    You can always find something other people are better at. So teach me, understand why it’s important, you’ll grow so strong in every way. Imagine if you did that to every person you came in contact with? You put yourself underneath them to learn? I always stay a student. “

  2. Shawn Kilburn Reply

    This reminds me of Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale. Not so much the story, but the ending where the priest basically says, well, even though this was a silly story, separate the wheat from the chaff, and get what good you can from it.

    If you haven’t read Canterbury Tales, they’re a great example of this chengyu. Thanks so much for sharing!

  3. Andrew Meintzer Reply

    Thanks for writing a great blog. The idea of learning from everyone is an idea I always try to practice myself, But this took that principle farther, and helped me see that i should be more diligent about doing this with literally everyone, rather than just people I respect and admire, or intellectuals and thinkers with opposing opinions. I do try to learn from every normal person, but I should get a lot better at that, including people like homeless people. That’s so cool man.

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