“Looking?  Found someone, you have, I would say, hmmm?” – Yoda

The Tao of Yoda
Image credit: Olga Shvartsur

Why do we love Yoda so much?  What is it about this little character from Star Wars that intrigues us?  And more importantly, what can we learn from him that is applicable in real life?

In short, a lot can we learn.

Now, I’ll tell you what I love about Yoda and what I’ve learned from him, but first a very important caveat MUST be addressed.

I speak of the The Empire Strikes Back (and to a lesser extent, Return of the Jedi) Yoda, and never mind with the Episodes 1-3 (and most definitely not TLJ) representation of this character.  I’m not a huge George Lucas hater, but of all the atrocious missteps of the prequel trilogy, the dumbing down of this particular character is by far the worst, in my opinion.  Instead of giving Yoda foresight and wisdom, he was equipped with corny quasi-insightful messages and CGI-fueled, light-saber wielding battles, that turned him into a whirling dervish caricature of what the Jedi Master should have been.

Further, with the the introduction of (shudder) Midi-chlorians, Lucas essentially solidifies the concept that those that just happen to win a genetic lottery are the ones that get to make a difference in the universe.  To be fair, there is that sense in the original movies as well (since the Force is strong with Luke, it implies that others are weak with it, or simply not attuned), but with the proclamation that “Midi-chlorian count” equals the level of Force strength, it gives the Force a tangibility that takes away most of the mystique (and fun) out of the Jedi concept.

Now, with that messiness taken care of, on with the real Yoda’s philosophy on mentorship and life lessons.  First, if you’re not that familiar with Star Wars , shame on you.

However, I’ll forgive you that grievous lack of judgement if you watch this clip (source: YouTube) , just as an introduction to Luke Skywalker, who is seeking a Jedi Master to train him, and his initial meeting with Yoda.  Now, if you’ve never seen the Star Wars movies (Note: from hereon in I’ll assume you’ve seen the movies, but regardless, I’ll describe the scene a little), or only have a passing knowledge of them, you’ll notice that in this initial scene Yoda doesn’t behave much like a mentor or teacher, but rather like a rambunctious and curious child.  Only later does he reveal his true identity, but this first persona served a very important purpose in Yoda’s evaluation of Luke as both a pupil and as a person, and presents one of many questions that his philosophy asks:

How do you treat those that can do nothing for you?

As you saw in the clip, Luke has a fairly high opinion of himself.  Perhaps he has right to, though.  He’s is strong with the Force, after all, and has blown up a Death Star, brought down an Imperial Walker, and is a leader of the Rebellion.  So, when he comes across this scrawny little being on a backwater planet, what reaction other than dismissive annoyance would you expect?  Later on, though, when Yoda reveals himself as a Jedi Master, Luke is flabbergasted, and rushes to explain that he is ready to be trained as a Jedi.  However, the first impression is already made.

This lesson can also be applied to everyday life.  From personal experience I have noticed that those that take a stance of superiority unless there is some other authority figure present (manager, parent, etc.) aren’t usually people that I care to associate with in my own life.  Though some would classify this attitude as a sign of leadership, the need to subvert others in order to raise oneself does not bode well long-term for any leader of substance.  Also speaking from personal experience, and from years of walking through life along the Low Self-esteem Highway, I noticed that too often people will only treat you as well as they think they have to (or, if you’re a pessimist, treat you as badly as they think they can get away with).  We all know people that have no problem giving waiters, janitors and fast-food workers a difficult time simply because they are the ones being served.  What does that say about the person, however?  Are they someone you would trust?  Are they what you hope your child ends up being like?  Probably not, and neither are they Jedi material.  Which is why Yoda has his doubts about Luke, and whether he is trainable.  But, this is not the only reason.  Though Yoda was testing his character, he was also asking another question of Luke:

  Are you paying attention?

Though Yoda was being deceitful with his initial persona, you will notice that nothing he says to Luke is a lie, and is, in fact, quite insightful.  Once Luke has determined that he wasn’t a threat (though he never stopped to question how this creature was able to sneak up on both he and R2-D2), he tells Yoda that he’s looking for someone, to which Yoda replies, “Looking? Found someone, you have, I would say.”  Though seemingly innocuous, Yoda was in fact telling Luke that he had just found the person he was searching for.  Alas, Luke shrugs the hint off without a noticeable thought, and instead tries to clarify the importance of his search by saying that he’s looking for a great warrior.  To this the green being scoffs, “Wars do not make one great.”  This should have been Luke’s first real clue that there was more than meets the eye in this situation, but his arrogance was still obscuring his attention.  Once Luke clarifies that he’s seeking a Jedi Master, Yoda obliges Luke by suddenly knowing exactly who he seeks (even though it’s him the whole time) and offering to take Luke to meet Yoda.  And Luke’s unfounded confidence allows him to be led through this charade until the moment of Yoda’s choosing, and not before.  Luke never asked himself how this creature, who miraculously is not only sentient, but speaks his language, was essentially waiting for Luke on an otherwise wild, swamp-laden planet.  He never thought to question that perhaps he’d been guided to that exact spot by the person he was seeking.  He instead chose to believe that he was in charge of his entire situation.  Yoda showed him otherwise, and very effectively.

This is probably one of my favorite lessons from Yoda because of the nuance and craft that he shows in both fooling and instructing Luke about the dangers of overconfidence.  What it has also shown me, though, is an insight into a different paradigm of thinking; one in which I pay attention to what is happening now, and not just what my plans are for the future.  Too often have I gotten into the mode of “Once I’m done with this, I’ll do that, which in turn will allow me to do this…..”, only to have something interrupt my first planned step, and thus nullifying all subsequent steps.  Though it is important to have goals, I’ve found that it’s also important to stay in the moment and realize that what you do now, is as important as what you may accomplish later.

In the movie, this is reinforced when Yoda chastises Luke for his youthful ideologies of looking to the future for adventure and excitement instead of paying attention to where he was and what he was currently doing.  This lesson leads naturally into the next question of Yoda’s philosophy:

Is the Truth or your ego more important to you?

If you’ve not seen Star Wars , just know this: Yoda does not suffer fools gladly or lightly (or any other way for that matter).  His ally may be the Force, but his language is the Truth.  When Luke, still trying to convince him that he is worthy of training, says, “I’m not afraid,” Yoda simply tells him, “You will be.  You will be.”  And later, in one of the most well-known parts of all the Star Wars movies, when Luke declares that he’ll try to lift his sunken starship out of a swamp using only the Force, Yoda interrupts him with, “No.  Do, or do not.  There is no try.”  Though his instruction is often critical, it is given with an assumption in mind: That you’ve checked your ego at the door.  This is the only genuine way to receive guidance, as Luke quickly finds out.  Ultimately, Luke fails to free his ship from the swamp because his ego gets in the way, but there is a valuable lesson in this failure (as I’ll get into in a bit).

This is not a minor point, as I have come to realize that mistakes are often not only unavoidable, but necessary, and they are best learned from by ignoring a bruised ego.  This is because your ego, though useful in other circumstances, only hinders your ability to get at the truth.  And being truthful with yourself is an important step in both personal and professional growth, else you may become satiated, and thus, stagnant.  And as Yoda would surely remind you, satiation and stagnation are just the fancy neighbors of apathy, where no truth can be found (and truly harbingers of the Dark Side are they).  So, once you’ve cast aside your ego, Yoda now has the two most important questions of his philosophy to ask.  First:

What are you willing to sacrifice?

As Luke’s training progresses, Yoda begins challenging him more and more, pushing him to his limits.  At one point, Luke is doing a handstand, while using the Force to lift various objects (including R2), and he begins to see visions of the future (as Jedi are known to do) in this meditative state.  He sees his friends in trouble, and decides that he must abort his Jedi training and go save them himself, against Yoda’s advice.  Yoda explains that to go against his enemy only half-trained is to go down the quick and easy path to ruin.  Finally, though, Luke brazenly questions Yoda, in effect telling him that he would be sacrificing his friends’ lives.  Countering this, Yoda coolly tells him that if Luke honors what they are fighting for, then that sacrifice is what is called for.  So Luke goes off to save his friends anyway, only half-trained, and ends up severely injured and needing to be rescued himself, thereby endangering his friends who could have easily escaped if not for him.

This lesson is a tough pill to swallow, because we can easily delude ourselves into thinking we’re doing the right thing for the right reason, all the while we’re only acting in a recklessly selfish manner.  In Luke’s case, the more difficult thing is not to act, to have patience and complete his Jedi training, so as to enable him to help his friends and his cause effectively.  In my own case, I’ve had my own share of Yodas telling me to complete my training (i.e. go back to college and get my degree), but for far too many years I told myself that staying with my job and working long hours would reap the same effects.  Worse, I often told myself that I would be sacrificing a quality of life for myself and my wife if I went back to school.  Though this is true, I see now that it would have been well worth the sacrifice.  So I lied to myself and said that hard work and loyalty to my company would show managers that I had the potential for something greater.  In the end, I wound up as hamstrung and helpless as Luke hanging from the bottom of Cloud City.  I ended up at a point where I would have given my right hand to go back and begin my college career when I was told to, so as to avoid the endless “we’d consider you for [insert position here], if you had a degree” conversations I had with managers.  To be fair, I know that I had more maturity and perspective when I did finally go back and get my degree, but I also know that I stunted my career in delaying it for so long.  The fear of this sacrifice, however went hand-and-hand with Yoda’s final question:

Do you believe?

Now, back to Luke’s attempt and failure at lifting his starship with the Force.  He fails, telling Yoda that the ship is simply too big.  Yoda, ever the mentor, tells him, “Size matters not.  Look at me.  Judge me by my size, do you?  And well you should not.  For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is.”  Luke’s only response is, “You ask the impossible,” then goes off to the jungle to sulk.  Yoda then demonstrates his instruction, lifting the ship from the swamp and setting it down on firm ground.  Luke can only breathlessly exclaim, “I…I don’t believe it!”  Yoda simply responds, “That is why you fail.”  Ooooh.  I get goose-bumps and chills every time, because I know that that line of dialogue is not just for Luke, but for the moviegoer, as well.  If you don’t believe in what you’re doing, you’ve already failed at doing it.  If you’ve put mental limits on what you think you can accomplish, then heed another piece of Yoda advice and, “Unlearn what you have learned.”

These are harsh lessons, and Luke doesn’t always exactly pass them with flying colors, but he begins to understand their importance.  Mainly, that regardless of the result of your efforts, if you’re true to yourself and your principles you will have succeeded.  Many times in Star Wars  Luke wants to exclaim that he is a Jedi, and to have that title, that responsibility, that power.  In the end, after defeating one vaunted foe, he faces an ultimatum from ultimate wielder of the Dark Side in the Emperor:  Join the Emperor and accept the Dark Side.  Taking all of Yoda’s mentoring in, he is able to simply cast aside his lightsaber, accept that he may have to sacrifice his life for good of the galaxy, and state emphatically, “I am a Jedi Knight, like my father before me.”  Though he is nearly destroyed, his belief in himself and his principles are what allow him to resist the temptation of power.

So finally, I can ask this about the Tao of Yoda:  What makes his mentorship philosophy great?   It’s that its genius is its simplicity in making everything a test, and that you become your own teacher under its guidance.  And also, don’t be so quick to dismiss someone who doesn’t exactly fit the mold of mentorship. Though you may encounter them in an unexpected time and place, they may just be what you’re looking for.

The Truth, this is.

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