The Wise Fool

Almost ten years ago now I attended a symposium at one of the English immersion schools in Japan.

It was basically a tour of the school followed by a series of conference style presentations (where, incidentally, I witnessed probably the worst presentation of my life… but that’s a story for another day).

One of the presentations was by a Canadian professor of bilingual education.

I really, really, wish I could remember her name.

Because her presentation, while definitely “odd” I’m the typical sense, changed the way I think about many things in a big way.

It was all about the concept of the “wise fool” — characters from mythology the world over who, on the surface, played the fool and we’re ridiculed by others for being stupid. But who were actually the smartest people of their kingdoms, often manipulating the ego-centric kings into getting things that no one else could.

There’s a fantastic example of this in the Netflix series Daredevil.

One of the gangster characters, Madam Gao, is Chinese and for the majority of the show, she plays the fool as far as English is concerned. She pretends she doesn’t understand or speak English and makes everyone — even the so-called “bigger” mafia characters — speak Chinese.

In reality, she understands everything they say in English, sits back and listens. Absorbs all the information that people think she can’t understand.

Now, I’m not saying you should be manipulative (or a gangster).

But what I am saying is there is power in not taking yourself too seriously.

My BFF Mayi Lin (who runs the school Leeds Mayi in Taipei) recently said to me that she will never trust someone who can’t laugh at themselves.

And I agree.

Being able to laugh at yourself, step away from your ego, and knowing when to stop being so fucking serious is a real skill.

This is especially true if you’re a teacher, and that’s what the presentation I mentioned was all about. I mean, how do you expect your students to be comfortable with taking risks or making mistakes if you, yourself are not? How do you expect them to shrug off a mistake if you yourself are too uptight to allow yourself to make a mistake in front of them?

But it’s also true of anyone learning a language, too.

If you fuck up and can’t laugh at that… or use it to further the conversation… well, don’t be surprised when people see you as lacking in confidence.

Julian Northbrook