When the student is ready…

​Turns out it’s a quote often put in the mouth of the Buddha. But it’s still pretty useful.

​“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

Do you know what it means? It seems obvious right? But as I thought about this yesterday, I realised there’s two possible interpretations.


The student, after he has learnt and achieved enough, transitions into the role of a teacher. 

You see this in martial arts. As someone ascends to the higher belts, they are expected to teach the less experienced. Whilst they themselves continue to learn.

Or in the business world. After someone becomes a success in their field, they begin to mentor and coach others. Either directly, one-to-one, or indirectly, by speaking and writing about their experience.

 Part of the teaching role is altruistic. It’s about sharing what you’ve learnt so others don’t have to go through the same struggle as you did. But part of it is motivated by self-interest. As this diagram from Austin Kleon summarises, when one teaches, two learn.

But I think the second interpretation is more interesting.


The first interpretation focuses on the student after he is far along in his journey. He’s learnt enough to begin passing on. This one focuses on the student right at the beginning.

​Mortimer Adler in How to Read a Book says:

​“The activity of the student must somehow be responsive to the activity of the instructor” 

​A student is not a student unless he is willing to be taught. Unless he responds to instruction. 

When the student has accepted that he has something to learn, he begins to find teachers all around him. They appear everywhere. In traditional places, as mentors and coaches. But also in more unexpected locations.

When the student is ready, an abusive relationship is a teacher. So is a loving one. When the student is ready, a bad book is a teacher. And so is a great one. 

When the student is ready, every moment, event and person is a teacher.