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What is a Sensei, and do I need one?

Sensei is an honorific term shared in Chinese, Korean, and Japanese honorifics that is translated as “person born before another” or “one who comes before.”

This definition stands in sharp contrast to the Western stereotype of Mr. Miyagi and high specialization. In fact, the Eastern definition is so broad that the mere act of living makes one a Sensei. Perhaps this is hard to digest in the West were everything is hard-earned, or perhaps it demonstrates a much bigger problem with our culture. In the East, elders are respected and sought out for their knowledge. In the West, they are not[1].

When we seek knowledge from our elders[2], we are displaying humility. It is this humility that allows us to learn. We are saying, you know something that I do not know. We are also demonstrating vulnerability to the Sensei; in many ways, putting our lives in their hands. This vulnerability is the key to unlocking the Sensei’s knowledge. In sharp contrast, when humility is not present, there is no seeking. When there is no seeking, there is no sharing. The arrogant are made to repeat the mistakes of their elders rather than build upon them. Meanwhile, the humble slowly and steadily gain knowledge, put that knowledge to use, build upon it, and soon find themselves ready to be Sensei; the ultimate form of giving back.

Along the way I have had many Sensei and I have been a Sensei to many. The virtuous cycle continues as we all make each other better.

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[1]The distinction between Western and Eastern culture is going away with time as Western culture continues to expand

[2] Age is not the main determinant of the Sensei-student relationship. The main determinants are experience and learning. As such, younger people can also be Sensei to older people if they have more experience and learning in a topic.

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