"Wars not make one great" and other uncommon sense from Master Yoda
|Jul 20||Public post|| 22|
Today’s surprise is a big one indeed. It started as a mere quote collection, but then I realized without context, they would be meaningless. So I wove everything into one coherent narrative. Yoda is one of my favorite heroes ever, and he bears much resemblance to a Kung Fu master like Bruce Lee. I’m sure he would have agreed there’s a lot to learn from him. This will take about 10-15 minutes to read. If you don’t have the time or don’t want to, that’s fine, but that’s what I ended up with today. I hope you’ll like it. We’ll be back to more microblogs tomorrow!
A friend of mine calls me Yoda sometimes. It feels really good. If you don’t know, Yoda is one of the strongest characters in one of the strongest stories of all time: Star Wars.
Yoda is a tiny, green creature of an unknown species, over 800 years old, and Grand Master of the Jedi Order. The best of the good guys, if you will. He has an incredible ability to wield the Force - the invisible power all Jedi rely on - and is a brilliant fighter with a lightsaber, their weapon of choice. He’s also the head teacher of all young Jedi and the first person everyone turns to when they need advice.
But the truth is, I’m not Yoda. We might both be short, but I’m just a 28-year-old kid, and I’m only green behind the ears. Of course, if I’m honest, I’d like to be - and that’s why it feels good to be compared to such a legend even though I don’t deserve it.
Despite all his strength, Yoda’s biggest and true power lies in his wisdom. He speaks a little backwards and often in riddles, but every word he chooses is placed exactly where it’s meant to be. That’s why he says quite little, but what he says hits hard.
Yoda is not just a Jedi Master, he’s a master of the perspective shift.
Most of the time, what he tells us completely flips the angle from which we were trying to approach a problem. Often, he shows us we’ve been focusing on the wrong problem altogether. This is incredibly valuable.
Perspective shifts elevate our thinking. They allow us to overcome seemingly insurmountable barriers, move a lot faster, and see the world more clearly. They also help us elevate others by sharing what we’ve learned with them.
Since he’s a quiet character, there aren’t that many Yoda quotes to draw from, but I’ve assembled his best ones to help you see how he architects perspective shifts. He frequently talks about teacher-student relationships, war, and what it means to be a good person. May they help you learn to change your mind and that of others.
When Luke Skywalker is first sent to Yoda’s planet to learn from him, he bumps right into the Master and tells him he’s looking for someone, to which Yoda only says:
“Looking? Found someone you have, eh?”
Picasso supposedly said: “I don’t seek. I find.” In a 1923 book called The Arts, there is an explanation of what he meant:
“I can hardly understand the importance given to the word research in connection with modern painting. In my opinion, to search means nothing in painting. To find is the thing. Nobody is interested in following a man who, with his eyes fixed on the ground, spends his life looking for the purse that fortune should put in his path. The one who finds something no matter what it might be, even if his intention were not to search for it, at least arouses our curiosity, if not our admiration.”
In the same vein, Yoda trusts the Force to guide our path in life. You can call it God, the universe, karma, or whatever you like - the point is to have faith. Keep your eyes open, stay present, and look, rather than obsessing over an idea in your head.
The next thing Luke says is that he’s “looking for a great warrior.” Once again, Yoda flips the notion on its head immediately:
“Ohh. Great warrior. Wars not make one great.”
There’s a saying that is often credited to US president Herbert Hoover in various forms:
“Wars are always started by men too old to fight in them.”
It depends on the country, but many have a culture of decorating their war heroes. It serves us well to honor these men and women, but it makes it easy to forget the most honorable thing would have been to never send them into battle in the first place.
As Grand Master of the Jedi Order, Yoda also holds a position similar to a general. But most of his power in that position is spent trying to maintain peace and avoid fighting, because he knows wars only create losers on both sides:
“No longer certain, that one ever does win a war, I am. For in fighting the battles, the bloodshed, already lost we have.”
In that same spirit, being a Jedi is much like learning Kung Fu, as Yoda explains:
“A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.”
I can’t think of a more humbling thing than to learn how to fight in hopes of never having to use it. Rigorous physical training has many benefits: discipline, fitness, patience. But you still get all of them even if you never raise your fist against another human being.
Of course, sometimes, war is inevitable. In case of the Jedi, they are usually hopelessly outnumbered by the vast armies of the Galactic Empire. But again, Yoda knows there’s more to life than physical strength:
“Smaller in number are we, but larger in mind.”
There are countless examples from history of small groups outwitting large enemies. The 300 Spartans. The Trojan Horse. Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps. A good strategy can make up for a big lack in firepower.
This lesson also applies at an individual level, and it’s one of the first Yoda teaches Luke when he becomes his apprentice. He tells Luke to use the Force to telekinetically lift his spaceship from a swamp. When Luke fails, claiming it’s too big, Yoda retorts:
“Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? Hmm? Hmm. And well you should not. For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is.”
At first, Luke dismisses Yoda and walks away. But when he sees Yoda single-handedly lift the ship on his own and hover it to safety, he can barely trust his own eyes. He tells Yoda he can’t believe what he just did, to which Yoda says:
“That is why you fail.”
This is Yoda reiterating the very first thing he told Luke: it’s about believing before you can see. Not the other way around. This ties into what might be Yoda’s most famous quote of all:
“Try not. Do or do not. There is no try.”
Yoda combines immense faith with a strong sense of realism, of grounding. Those two might seem like opposites, but they’re not.
If you surrender to life and are fully in sync with what the universe wants to tell you, you’ll rarely attempt anything that’s not already meant to become a reality. This is why Yoda spends so much time thinking and meditating. He needs to listen. Tune in to the Force. Once he emerges, the path of action is so clear to him, it might as well be done already. This is Yoda’s job much more so than charging headfirst into every battle:
“Secret, shall I tell you? Grand Master of Jedi Order am I. Won this job in a raffle I did, think you? ‘How did you know, how did you know, Master Yoda?’ Master Yoda knows these things. His job it is.”
This job of knowing is what unites all of Yoda’s roles. Be it as a politician, general, or teacher. It would take Luke many years to finally understand this. In a conversation decades later, after Luke has become a Jedi Master himself, Yoda still needs to remind him that passing on his knowledge is his job. And one of the best ways to do so is through failure:
“Pass on what you have learned. Strength, mastery, hmm... but weakness, folly, failure, also. Yes, failure, most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is.”
There’s a quote by Tom Bodett about the difference between life and school:
“In school, you're taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you're given a test that teaches you a lesson.”
Great teachers know this, which is why they don’t lecture as much as they pose challenges to their students, then let them figure out the answers on their own. If they fail, they fail, but either way, they’ll truly learn something rather than just parrot the master’s words.
For example, when Yoda sends Luke into a dark cave to confront his fears, Luke asks him what he can expect in there. Yoda says:
“Only what you take with you.”
Luke is utterly confused and feels abandoned at first, but after he faces his demons, he realizes the only way for him to succeed was to rely on his own mind. Yoda couldn’t help him, just point the way. This theme ripples through every great teacher-student relationship until its very end:
“Luke, we are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.”
Failure is the master’s ultimate goal, because it means he has raised his or her disciple to become an even better one. Besides the rigorous training, the number one way Master Yoda aims to accomplish this is through ethics. What he’s most concerned with, even more so than their skill level, is that his students become good people.
That’s why many of his lessons revolve around the subject of not succumbing to the dark side of the Force - the evil path some Jedi choose and thus become corrupted. These lessons always have a Buddhist flair to them. They’re about mindfulness:
“Attachment leads to jealously. The shadow of greed, that is.”
In order to practice his combination of faith and presence and dedicate most of his time to thinking, Yoda lives a very minimalist life. He can’t afford to be distracted or pulled around by every impulse and latent desire rising in his heart. Therefore, letting go is the most important mental skill each Jedi must master:
“Train yourself to let go… of everything you fear to lose.”
Yoda knows this is his and all Jedis’ true enemy: fear. Fear is what pulls our minds to the past or the future. Fear is what creates attachment, and attachment leads to the emotions that, in turn, cause us to make dark choices.
“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
The way we deal with our fears and return to the present is to face them and hold out as they try to penetrate our minds - exactly what Yoda had Luke do in that cave:
“Named must your fear be before banish it you can.”
Of course, this isn’t a one-time event. We must face many fears in our lifetimes and no one is immune to them. Not even Yoda. He, too, admits being afraid:
“Yes, afraid. Hmm, surprised are you? A challenge lifelong it is, not to bend fear into anger.”
In his famous inauguration speech, US president Franklin D. Roosevelt said:
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
This principle is one of the maxims of Yoda’s teachings, as he witnessed the terrible consequences of allowing fear to fill a Jedi’s heart. Once upon a time, a young boy named Anakin was brought before the Jedi Council. He had great potential, but Yoda sensed much fear in him, and so he didn’t want the boy to be trained in the Jedi arts.
But one of the other Council members said he would train the boy anyway, and Yoda let it pass. Over time, the boy’s fear of losing those he loved only grew. In Yoda’s words:
“When you look at the dark side, careful you must be. For the dark side looks back.”
Eventually, Anakin’s fear had such a strong grip on him that the only path he saw was that of the dark side of the Force. In the same way Anakin was pulled over one day at a time, so do our fear-induced choices cause a vicious cycle. We take a shortcut to get out of one jam, which only leads us into a bigger one, which requires a bigger, even less ethical shortcut. Sooner or later, the person we once strived to be feels like our own worst enemy. Anakin literally became this enemy, and it is with great sorrow and anguish that Yoda reveals to his former master:
“The boy you trained, gone he is. Consumed by Darth Vader.”
Of course, we’re not the only ones facing this danger. Others are affected by it too. And sometimes, we still chase after them. Still hoping, wishing we could get them back. But the person we once felt connected to is long gone.
This brings us back to the war the Jedi were about to lose. They didn’t see that one of the politicians among their own ranks had gone through a similar transformation, and when they relied on his help, they found out he double-crossed them. After retreating and meditating, Yoda once again emerges with a perspective shift that has the power to turn a hopeless situation around:
“Yet, open to us a path remains. That unknown to the Sith is. Through this path, victory we may yet find. Not victory in the Clone Wars, but victory for all time.”
By simply changing the timeline from “how can we win this war?” to “how can we achieve lasting peace for everyone?” Yoda has elevated everyone’s thinking.
A more generally applicable version of this idea is this:
“If no mistake have you made, yet losing you are, a different game you should play.”
Focusing on a different aspect of the bigger picture is another very common move in both war and politics. A group on the defense might try to go around the enemy and attack their flank, and an old adage in strategic thinking is:
“When everybody’s playing checkers, play chess.”
But it extends to so many more aspects of our lives than the conflict-driven ones. When you fail to get promoted time and again, maybe it’s time to look for a new job. When talking to your spouse about a problem doesn’t work, maybe it’s time to talk about how you talk to each other. And if writing two posts per week won’t cut it, you could try publishing daily or not at all for a while. The point is - and this is the biggest lesson we can learn from Yoda’s way of thinking - there’s always something you can do.
Learning how to shift your perspective is one thing, but, like Yoda’s belief in the Force, it first requires having faith in new perspectives in the first place. That’s why I can’t think of a better line to end on, a quote that more encapsulates Yoda’s spirit than this:
“Many of the truths that we cling to depend on our point of view.”
About Surprise Saturday: In the long run, the only good pattern is breaking our patterns. That’s why, every once in a while, we need a shock to the system. An unexpected idea. A creative surprise. That’s what we’ll unwrap every Saturday.
Picasso said he didn’t seek. He just found. Let’s keep exploring.
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