Teachers

When I was young, my teachers always announced themselves to me. The new school year wasn’t officially underway until they stood up from their desk, turned to the blackboard and wrote their name in large letters. There was little question at that moment who was in charge of my education.

As I’ve grown older, my teachers have become more plentiful but often harder to spot. No one who’s been to a conference or attended a meeting can deny that we’re still treated to those moments when someone stands and bestows upon themselves the role of “educator”.

School

Somewhere along the way however, it became the “accidental teachers” in my life who started delivering the most significant lessons. These accidental teachers have taken many forms: some have been friends of 15 years, while others, like the man whose story I’m about to tell, crossed paths with me for only a few hours.

Optimistic but Nervous…

I met Mustafa on an 83 degree December afternoon. He was leaning against the hood of a Land Cruiser outside my hotel in downtown Doha, Qatar. He flashed a dazzling smile as I approached, and pumped my hand enthusiastically as he welcomed me to “Mustafa’s grand adventure!”

I was three months out from having quit my job at the University of Toronto. I was broke but happy; optimistic but nervous. The future looked bright, but the present was still darkened by the challenging personal conflict that had led to my departure from a job I had honestly loved.

I was thrilled to be on my first international speaking tour, but the uncertainty of the future, and the still-fresh hurt of the recent past seemed intent on keeping me in a perpetual state of unease.

But Mustafa was having none of that. As we pulled away from the hotel and started heading to the outskirts of the city, Mustafa’s infectious energy overcame me.

He wanted to know everything about where I was from, what I was doing in Qatar, and what I was “dreaming of learning from the desert”. I admired his constant stream of laughter and smiles, and finally asked him how he stayed so upbeat.

“It’s my first day of work!” he exclaimed happily.

Now, bear in mind this man’s job was to take me “dune blasting” through the Middle Eastern desert, before helping me stay alive through the night in said desert. While I’m all for optimism and energy, I was hoping for a bit of experience as well.

“Um…it’s your first day?” I asked nervously.

“Of course!” he replied. “It’s always my first day! It’s been my first day for 18 years!”

No Second Days!

He laughed at my confusion and explained: “I go to work every day like it’s my first day. On your first day of work you dress your best, you listen the hardest, you are nice to everyone that you work with. On your first day you work to impress your new bosses and your new coworkers, and you hope and believe it will be a job you love. But we let that all start to go away on our second day.”

He winked at me and continued.

I decided 18 years ago I would not have a second day of work. I decided I would just redo my first. I have been redoing it every day since then. I am blessed to do what I love, and I think that is the best way to keep loving it.

Oddly enough, at that moment his remarkably positive insight depressed me. It reminded me of how much I had still wanted to accomplish at my old job. It reminded me of all the grand plans I would never get the chance to execute now that I was gone. I began to think of the person I held responsible for that loss, and my anger grew as I fell silent next to Mustafa.

We drove quietly for a few miles before Mustafa quietly asked, “Are you not having a good time?”

Not wanting to upset someone who was working so hard to provide a great experience, I shared with Mustafa my anger at my former boss, and the events that had unfolded to create that anger.

He drove silently for a few moments before quietly saying, “Drew, this person you speak of is so far away. You are here, in this remarkable place, on this grand adventure. She is so far away that it is day here, and night there. But you’re not letting it be day here. You are letting someone who is not even here make you angry, make you sad, and wreck your adventure. What is worse, you think it is her fault.”

“It is her fault!” I protested.

Protect Your Investment

Mustafa shook his head. “No my friend, it is not. Because it is you who have chosen to let someone live rent-free in your head and in your heart. A landlord may allow people to use his property, but he charges rent to protect his investment. You are the landlord of your mind and your heart. They are your most valuable property. To allow someone to live there they must provide you with something valuable in return. Sadness and hatred are not valuable to you. To let someone in who gives only those is to allow them to live rent free in your head and your heart.”

He glanced over at me. “The landlord sets the rent.  He cannot be angry when he is paid only what he asked for.”

My universities set their rent at close to $100,000 for access to their lessons.  Mustafa asked $200 for some kick-ass dune blasting. The life-changing insights were no doubt an accident.

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Mustafa is one of many accidental teachers in my life. They’ve taken the form of students, bosses, strangers on the bus and six-year-olds in a park. All of them brought insight and leadership to me in a way I expect few of them to recognize.

In the process, they’ve reminded me that my roles as teacher and leader aren’t restricted to moments in front of a classroom or when I’m standing center stage. Neither is yours.

Our leadership lies in the lessons we teach. We often have no idea when we’re delivering those lessons, so perhaps it’s best to live in a way that makes it likely we’ll be proud of what’s learned.

Have You Had Accidental Teachers?

What accidental teachers have you learned from? Take a minute and comment. Thanks!

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Drew Dudley
Drew is the Founder and Chief Catalyst of Nuance Leadership, Inc., and the former Coordinator of one of Canada’s largest leadership development programs at the University of Toronto.
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