Are You Smart Enough to Teach?

This is an excerpt from my new book, Be the Masteravailable now at Leanpub.

There’s a perception that you’re not “good enough” to teach until you know everything. Indeed, as I’ll point out later, adult education often starts with the premise that instructors must establish their superior knowledge in order to maintain authority over the class. As in Timothy’s story, however, a moment’s thought will show this theory to be false. Nobody knows everything, ergo, you know something that someone else doesn’t. It’s just a matter of finding them, and teaching them; you don’t need to be an “expert” in order to share knowledge.

This brings up another point of imposter syndrome that I’d like to dig into, because it’s something that really held me back for years. My problem had to do with what I call observational bias.

Hop onto your favorite news website, and tell me – based entirely on the data you see there – how you think your town, your region, your country, or the entire world is doing. “Not so well,” is a likely answer, because news media rarely publishes stories with headlines like, “nothing bad happened today.” Apart from one instance on April 18, 1930, when the BBC announced that it had, in fact, “no news,” I’m not sure it’s ever happened. This is observational bias: you observe only a limited set of available data, and you draw erroneous conclusions from it.

Imposter syndrome comes from the same place. We tend to look at our “gurus,” our exemplars, the people we learn from, and gauge ourselves against them. If we’re not as smart as we perceive them to be, then we’re not ready to teach. And many of us work in environments full of intelligent, capable people – and again, we compare ourselves to them. Surely if we’re not at least that good, then we’ve no business teaching someone else anything, right? But that’s observational bias. Look further. Look outside your usual environment. Look at those other than your “gurus.” Due to a biological phenomenon called the “birth rate,” there are always people with less knowledge and experience than you. Seek them out, and teach them. As adults in the modern world, our apprentices aren’t going to approach us and pay a fee for lifelong career training; we need to find our own audience, and help them as much as we can.

Remember, to be a Master is not to know it all – even if you can’t forge a proper shield, you’ve probably plenty to teach and share.

Incidentally, be prepared for the fact that stuff you personally find interesting and fun and leading-edge might not be the best way to help others. Take my career: I’m known, in my industry, for teaching what amounts to a programming language. Like many things technolgical, it includes a spectrum of things, some more entry-level and others much more advanced. The advanced stuff, to me, is cool. It’s hard, like a puzzle, and I enjoy playing with it. But that’s not what I teach. I teach entry-level stuff, because the entry-level people are the ones who need the most help. Folks interested in the super-hard stuff have already made it far enough that they can figure it out on their own – they don’t need me. So what I teach isn’t necessarily the same as what personally fascinates me. I’m not known as a “hardcore” technical guy in my field – I’m known as a decent teacher. I mean, it’d be lovely to have a reputation of knowing everyhing about the technology I love – but it’s even more lovely to know I’ve helped bring so many people into it to begin with.

2 thoughts on “Are You Smart Enough to Teach?

  1. Trond Jenssen

    Thoughtful words! Some 10 years ago I was an AutoCad “guru” at my office, and thought I was doing OK. But when I switched job and started teaching AutoCad, reality struck me. But after a year as a teacher I felt more of a “guru” than ever 🙂

  2. Wei-yen tan

    Absolutely true. Don you have helped me through older training sessions , for years and helped me get to where I am today.

    Now I teach those in my company that want to learn powershell to a certain level so that they can do things on their Own.

Comments are closed