The Truth About Gurus
One good one makes up for a world of phonies.
Imagine this: every night, I’m reading a book. The dog is at my feet. It’s a peaceful evening. And then — a 5' 4" redhead full of pointed energy struts into the room, arms held up by her face, ripping a piece of string back and forth through her teeth with all the intensity she can possibly muster.
This was the scene every night when Kate was trying to nag me into flossing.
I didn’t like having a mouth full of blood. Was that so bad?No matter how many times Kate asked me, I could never make it happen.
This all changed, however, one night at a bowling alley. Each Father’s Day, my brother and I join my dad to knock down pins and talk until our hands cramp and our throats ache. Somewhere in the rambling discussions of America’s future, each of our net worths, funeral planning (even though nobody is dying), and general longevity, my dad said these five words.
“Oh, wow. You don’t floss?”
I haven’t missed a night since.
“Everyone needs an idol, someone who represents a higher plateau of truth and knowledge.” — Niles Crane
In every argument of persuasion, there are three elements:
Logos is simple. (Or at least it was before the post-truth era came along.) Are you convinced by the logic of the argument? Pathos, too is a fairly straightforward concept: Are your emotions engaged in the argument?
Ethos is where it gets fun.
Ethos says you are persuaded not just by the argument itself, and not just what it does to your emotions, but also by the actual source of information.
You are constantly moved ethos, even if you don’t admit it. Why would you share a Pablo Picasso quote? Because it was Picasso who said it. Why would anyone read a 400-page book? Because it was a novel prize winner. Why is Abe Lincoln credited with quotes he didn’t actually say? Because the picture of dignity and respect is something you can hand your hat on.
Ethos literally affects whether or not your brain takes hold of the information, and therefore how likely you are to act on it. Gurus have the ultimate ethos.
I had seen the statistics on flossing (logos). Kate showed me the nasty pictures (pathos). Neither of those levers changed my behavior. My dad is my guru. I see him as a wise and wonderful and healthy person that I want to be (ethos).
Suddenly, I’ve decided to floss, no strings attached.
(Promise I didn’t try to make that a pun.)
Even CEOs need gurus
Do executives need gurus?
Yes. Maybe more than anyone.
Here’s what Yancey Strickler had to say on the difficulties of being Kickstarter’s CEO in his book — This Could Be Our Future.
“When I read stories about killer CEOs who never stopped working, never stopped selling, and who lived without fear or regret, I always judged myself…other people were smart and successful people. I’d just gotten lucky.”
Yancey’s insecurity was only one problem. Another was that he didn’t like the role models he saw. CEO culture can be cutthroat. Kickstarter was supposed to be set apart from that environment.
You know now that Kickstarter lived up its original vision.
How did it happen?
In short, Yancey found a guru.
It was a Japanese businessman named Konosuke Matsushita, who founded Panasonic. Yancey found comfort and guidance in the old man’s essays.
“The words of this elderly Japanese man were transformative for me. I had… a foundation that gave me the confidence to trust the same instincts I’d spent so much time doubting before.”
If the co-founder and CEO of one of the modern world’s most transformative businesses can seek out a guru, you can too.
The real reason you need a guru
Although my flossing thing happened long ago, it was brought to mind recently by a question my friend asked one morning over a phone call.
“Do you have heroes?”
I told him I did, but that they felt different than my childhood heroes.
As a child, you literally believe your heroes can do no wrong. Usually what happens next is what my friend experienced: his parents struggled in their relationship. He was pushed into a caretaker role much younger than he should have. He got fired twice. His role models abandoned him in time of need.
His gurus failed him.
Maybe some of those things have happened to you.
Here’s the thing, though — just because the innocence of childhood has been ripped away doesn’t mean a guru can’t help you. The world still has good examples to follow. This isn’t about finding some perfect human. it’s about finding a role model. Think about the meaning of those words:
- Role (a person’s place in a certain situation)
- Model (a thing used to model or imitate)
Models aren’t real. They are representations of what could be.
A guru offers wisdom that goes beyond what a human being could do. When you find a guru, don’t criticize. Don’t pick. Don’t look for fragility. Instead, ask — what does this person do right?
Humans are broken and weak. Gurus are wise and helpful. You have dreams and goals and visions. You are capable of all these things, but from time to time, you simply need help. By handing down lessons from their past, a guru can hand over the keys to your future.
That, ultimately, is whole point of a true guru. They don’t help you be them.
They help you be you.