Following up on Graham Weaver’s lecture to the Stanford MBA students, here’s another instance of wisdom imparted by a teacher to a class of young students. Colin Walsh, nominated for the Waterstones Debut Fiction Prize for his novel Kala, talks about how his high school teacher taught him the importance of curiosity and humility.

“…he said our awareness would be like a flame in a dark cave. The brighter and larger the flame grew, the more of the cave we would see. But with every bit of illumination, there would come a growing awareness of the vastness of the cave, of just how little of it we were actually seeing, and of how much more space and opportunity was left for our flame to grow.

According to him, if we were living right, we’d keep growing brighter and more curious as time went by, always seeing more, but with the expanding humility of knowing that insight can’t be exhausted; that life isn’t about reaching firm conclusions anyway, but about opening yourself to the possibility that you might be wrong, that there’s always more to learn.

Our culture tends to fetishise youthful naivety, to pretend that life’s a linear movement from the open innocence of youth to jaded experience. But much of my adult life has been the very opposite: it’s been about being disabused of my own prejudices; my failures of empathy and imagination; pushing against the seductions of certainty and staying true to that idea of the flame in the cave.
It’s a lesson I repeatedly fall short of – almost every time I’ve done something wrong in my life, really hurt someone, said or done the worst thing – it’s been because in that moment I was oblivious to what was beyond my own narrow powers of sight. Every blundering stumble has – in ways often as painful as beautiful – been a feeding of that flame.

So much of our lives today are lived within parameters designed to further entrench us in perpectives we already have. My teacher’s advice has been a sort of symbolic compass point warning me against the dangers of my own incuriosity. His words remind me to remain open to that which might further illuminate a darkness I don’t even realise I can’t see.

Not every life-changing moment is an earth-shattering “things were never the same” scenario. The words of my teacher formed a subtler threshold, a speech that passed by quietly in a sunlit classroom, but it kicked open a door in my mind, a door through which much of my subsequent life has flowed.”

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