The Grand Master of the Jedi Order, Yoda, is one of the most beloved movie characters of all time. You will find references to him in almost every context of working life. In technology services start-ups, we talk about how certain people are the ‘Yoda’ of some given topic, where the term Yoda is meant to indicate they know all things, and are the go-to source for acquiring said knowledge.
That is all fine and lovely and good, but I think there are several things about Yoda’s approach to teaching and mentoring that are actually not great practices, and are perhaps even counter-productive to the process of teaching, learning, and collaborating with others.
Before I start complaining about Master Yoda, I want to be clear…I love Yoda. You can find an ocean of scholarly articles about the ways in which Yoda is an example to teachers and mentors the world over. This makes sense since he was the heart and soul of a millennium of light side force instruction for the Jedi. Basically, if that guy came around here, I’d be first in line to give him a hug. So, you know, mea culpa. I’m about to dis Yoda:
Number 10: Micro-manage much? Communicating information from life form to another is a super complicated process that just can’t be micromanaged. Riding around on your mentee’s back directing them to do this, then do that, with no consideration of the mentee’s motivations, desires, mental states makes for a pretty inefficient process, rife with frustration. The scene where Yoda is riding around on Luke’s back is a classic, and a classic bad example of bossing your student to death.
Number 9: Lack of transparency. Okay, so I get that force is complicated and dangerous. You can’t possibly explain everything there is to know about it in one sitting. But telling your mentee some basic information that you are pretty certain they would want to know, and would help frame their education seems like it should be pretty high on your learning objectives. Not cool, Yoda. Vader’s in the family, and we probably should have told Luke that a tiny bit sooner. Deception has no place in mentoring.
Number 8: The importance of goals. Why am I standing on my head in the mud again, Yoda? I think this is a common kung-fu movie motif, because the obtuse teaching method which makes students do things they don’t understand happens a lot (wax on, wax off…pick up your jacket…you think that’s air you are breathing now?). Yoda seemed to be executing on the Jedi version of ‘because I said so’ teaching method. Being clear about what it is that you are trying to achieve with a learning interaction, and why you are undertaking some set of activities will yield much better results…seriously.
Number 7: Communicate clearly. Trying to explain something here, am I. Yeessss. While Yoda’s speech patterns are basically hilarious, they were often a hindrance for clear communication. Layering on complicated and inconsistently applied speech patterns (object-subject-verb, but only sometimes) can be a serious hindrance in mentor relationships. Finding a way to minimize information friction should be job one for all mentors!
Number 6: Authentic assessments. Does anyone understand that whole Luke’s face in the Vader mask in the swamp in the log scene? Did that mean that Luke’s greatest enemy was himself, just like his father? I can’t tell. Also, testing your student by making them force-float a giant X-Wing fighter through the air is pretty much not fair. I’ve only done that one or two times…max. Mentee’s should understand clearly what the standard is, how to get there, and how they know they’ve achieved the skill. Mysterious success criteria does not a good student make.
Number 5: Authority problems. So, we should respect our elders, especially if they are 800 years old. Luke clearly made some specious inferences when he first met Yoda, resulting in hilarious who’s on first shenanigans. Yoda didn’t help things by being 2 feet tall, green, and basically a crazy person (since when does the Grand Master of the Jedi Temple LOVE tiny flashlights?), but when it came time to actually get down to force-learning business, Yoda spent a lot of timeexpressing frustration at an apparent lack of respect from Luke. The mentor-mentee relationship is a delicate one, that cannot scale with strict hierarchies of power. When you’ve got one participant with all the authority, and the other with none, you get the Sith Rule of Two, and that results in galactic genocide, oppression, and general sadness. Don’t do that!
Number 4: Constructed learning from existing contexts. Remember that time when Luke got all cocky and was bragging about targetingWomp rats in his T-16 back home, and then he saved the galaxy? There was something really powerful about the context that Luke grew up that fueled his desire to perform well. Yoda failed to figure out how to relate force learning to things that Luke already knew about. I bet Luke never did a handstand on Tatooine even once.
Number 3: Dispel cult auras. When you are as old and awesome as Yoda, it is hard to not have cults of personality built up around you. He didn’t do much to minimize this cult, and here we are many long longs into the future and the cult of Yoda is bigger than ever. Learning from a cult leader, not surprisingly, does not result in awesome learnings. Students need to understand and respect who they are learning from, and not be distracted by hero worship and myths.
Number 2: Accessibility in all ways. I want to cut Yoda some slack on this point because he was being pursued by a pretty powerful, committed, and merciless set of dark side force users. Hopefully this wasn’t standard practice for the previous 800 years of instruction, but getting to Dagobah was unnecessarily difficult. Knowing that you have easy, comfortable access to your mentor is enormously helpful in making progress, and for course correcting your practice with good feedback.
Number 1: There is nothing magical about learning new things. This is mostly a complaint about the Star Wars metaphysics, and Yoda did make Luke work pretty hard. All mentee’s should know that learning is hard work, and no amount of midi-chlorians is going to make you excellent at something. There are no shortcuts, and no books you can read to have the secrets of a skill revealed to you. You have to do the thing you want to be better at…over and over and over again.
Previously on GeekWire: Top 10 reasons why Darth Vader was an amazing project manager
Brandon Koeller is the CEO of FNX Studios, a Bellevue software product consulting firm. Brandon loves software, technology, and putting check marks in little boxes next to action items. He also loves Star Wars, which is way cooler than Star Trek. You can follow him on Twitter @BrandonKoeller or @FNXStudios.