One of the most invisible but important trends I’m seeing play out in the world today is the trend of everyone becoming a teacher.
Managers are teachers to their reports. Marketers educate their customers about their solution. Analysts train their clients in how to interpret the data. Engineers teach their organizations how to think in terms of first principles.
We’ve long understood that in today’s world, everyone has become a lifelong learner. What I think is less appreciated is that many of us therefore have to become lifelong teachers.
Being a teacher used to be limited to a specific, full-time, long-term profession that educated people during a single, limited period of their lives. That profession is needed more than ever, but at the same time, teaching has transcended a single profession.
No matter what you do in your work or life, there are people around you who could benefit tremendously from what you know. Whether that includes your employees and colleagues, followers and customers, or simply your children, I believe it’s important for us to embrace this new identity.
One of the most helpful frameworks I’ve ever encountered for understanding what it means to be a teacher is from Brendon Burchard, who runs a training program for entrepreneurial teachers called Experts Academy.
I’ve adapted it with some modifications of my own, summarized in the article below. I hope it helps you understand that as a teacher, your identity will evolve through four distinct phases, all of which have value, and all of which allow you to make an impact no matter how much (or how little) you know.
Every teacher naturally moves through four stages or identities over time:
- Role model
Each one of these stages is important and valuable. There is always more knowledge to acquire, but whether you teach as a profession or as part of your career or business, every step has something precious to teach you now.
The First Identity: Reporter
When you first start reading about and researching a subject, you probably don’t know much about it. That’s the reason you started looking into it in the first place – you knew little and wanted to know more.
At this point it can feel like you don’t have much to offer, when in fact you do: you have the naivete and innocence of a beginner. Your mind is like a blank slate, free of unspoken assumptions and unquestioned traditions.
At this first stage, your credibility comes from your lack of experience. You are a reporter, chasing leads, asking questions, and reporting your findings “live from the field.”
Think about an investigative journalist exploring a niche subculture or an emerging underground trend. We don’t expect them to be experts in that arena. How could they be? Their authority and contribution comes from their willingness to face the unknown and give us the play by play of everything they learn, discover, and are surprised by.
I sometimes see online creators who are “waiting” until they have enough knowledge and expertise to begin creating content and sharing their message. But in doing so, they are entirely missing out on this first stage, which will soon pass. Being a beginner is an incredibly valuable stage for a teacher.
Instead of treating “learning” as an initial step that you have to get through before becoming an expert with something to offer, treat the process of learning as a subject in itself – an experience that is worth reporting on in real time. There are insights and revelations you have in the midst of learning something for the first time that you won’t remember after the fact.
You can act as an open-minded observer who is seeing a subject through the eyes of a novice, and allow others to look through that lens and discover it alongside you. Not only is this a much more fun and collaborative approach to learning, but this reporting can bring you the attention, respect, and resources you need to get to the later stages.
As Burchard notes, Napoleon Hill essentially does the work of a reporter in his best-selling book Think and Grow Rich. Hill interviewed wealthy, famous people like Andrew Carnegie and synthesized their advice about success into useful takeaways that “regular” people could use. People continue buying the book to this day because of the value of that distilled wisdom.
Before I was considered a “productivity expert” in my own right, I spent a long time reporting on the ideas of others. I summarized best-selling books, taught the most influential productivity methods in my own words, and curated the best productivity tips and techniques for those who didn’t have as much time to explore them.
Knowing that I was in an early, curatorial stage of my career gave me the confidence to report on the ideas of others, compare and contrast their approaches, and hold off on offering my own advice until I had considered all the advice that already exists.
The Second Identity: Expert
Eventually, your time as a reporter will end. You will acquire enough knowledge and experience that you’ll inevitably begin to develop your own taste and form your own opinions about your subject.
This can’t be avoided or postponed. It happens naturally as a side effect of the time you are spending in your field of choice. You will come to know all its facets, the ins and outs, and the pros and cons of all the positions one might take.
At this second stage, your source of credibility switches from your impartiality, to your partiality. You no longer offer all the ways someone could approach your field; you begin to recommend what you think are the best ways, based on the experience you’ve accumulated immersing yourself in the details.
The word “expert” conjures up images of extremely specialized, complex technical knowledge, but consider all the practical skills that you’ve probably developed expertise in through producing tangible results in the real world.
Burchard suggests, “You may know how to get promoted, sew a blanket, get a great deal on a car, write a song, produce a movie, create a blog, get out of debt, lose some weight, improve your marriage, lead others, deal with criticism, give birth to a child, manage employees, ace an exam, find an agent, overcome fear, care for a sick loved one, give a good speech, buy a house, find the perfect clothing style, resume a normal life after a serious illness, or nearly anything you can think of.”
If you have struggled through something and survived, what did you learn from that experience that others might be able to use to lessen their own struggle? If you’ve experienced a turning point, a tragedy, or a triumph, that life lesson could be invaluable for others in their moment of greatest need. Never forget that expertise can come from books, or it can come from life experience, and the latter tends to be more useful for the everyday problems people are facing.
I’ve spent most of the past decade building up my reputation as a productivity expert. I’ve written many thousands of words about my ideas on this blog, been interviewed dozens of times, and will soon be publishing my own book. My confidence in my expertise comes not from a degree or institution, but from seeing the practical results it has helped people produce over the years.
The Third Identity: Mentor
Beyond serving as a reporter and an expert, a teacher can also become a mentor.
The problem with expertise is that it takes a lot of time and energy to maintain. You have to work to constantly stay at the leading edge of your field, updating your knowledge and keeping up to speed on the latest developments. That’s sustainable for a while, but eventually you’ll want to ease up on the gas pedal a little and turn your attention to capitalizing on the knowledge you’ve already attained.
It’s time to become a leader.
The crisis we are often faced with when we consider moving into a mentorship or leadership position is, how can we lead others when we ourselves are no longer at the very leading edge of our field? How can I lead a software company when my own software development skills are rusty? How can I lead a real estate agency when I haven’t personally closed a sale in years? How can I lead a science laboratory when my own experimental skills have atrophied? How can I run for local office when I’m not completely up to speed on all the latest issues?
You do it by serving as a mentor to others. You shift your emphasis from accumulating detailed technical knowledge to building teams to accumulate such knowledge. You redirect your attention from maximizing your own growth to investing in the growth of others. You use some of the surplus attention and resources you have access to to support talented young people who just need a break.
In other words, leadership as a teacher means turning your attention to the more holistic, subjective, tacit forms of knowledge needed to lead others, such as how to communicate effectively, how to inspire greatness in others, how to coach people through challenges, how to be self-aware and understand your own blind spots, and how to convey a vision that others are willing to follow.
Being a mentor has some distinct differences and advantages over being an expert:
- You teach through who you are and what you do, not just what you say.
- You model behaviors that others can mimic without necessarily understanding all the reasoning behind them.
- The skills and knowledge of a mentor don’t change nearly as quickly, so you can offer them to more people over a longer period of time.
- You gain more leverage and more impact by building teams (or organizations) that embody what you know in forms that can extend your reach and outlive you.
Being a mentor isn’t something you can choose exactly. It is an identity that other people choose for you. They make you into a mentor when they want to learn something more tacit and implicit than can be transmitted via a lecture. Generally you wake up one day and find out that someone has made you their mentor. The only choice is whether to embrace that identity.
Serving as a mentor is a much more expansive, personal relationship than that of a teacher. Most people don’t have someone in their life that calls forth the best in them. Most people don’t have a coach or advisor pushing them to grow as a person. You can be that kind of person for them.
The Fourth Identity: Role Model
While mentorship is powerful, it is limited to people you know and can influence directly, which makes it hard to scale. Eventually, if you want to continue expanding your reach and your impact without working harder and longer, you’ll be faced with the possibility of taking on the fourth identity of a teacher: as a role model.
What does it look like to teach others without ever having to interact with them directly? Or even know who they are?
Consider someone like Chris Hadfield, who retired from a 35-year career as a pilot and astronaut almost a decade ago. As the first Canadian astronaut to perform extravehicular activity in space, he flew two Space Shuttle missions and served as commander of the International Space Station (ISS). He was responsible for a team that ran dozens of scientific experiments dealing with the impact of low gravity on human biology, among many other missions.
Hadfield is probably no longer an expert on all the latest scientific, technological, and political issues in space exploration, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a teacher. I would argue that he is at the peak of his teaching career. His life embodies the timeless, universal qualities that make astronauts role models: character, courage, selflessness, curiosity, generosity, and a pioneer spirit.
Hadfield has modeled what it means to be an astronaut by chronicling life on board the space station, taking pictures of the Earth and posting them on various social media platforms. Back on Earth, he is a frequent guest on television news and talk shows, helping spread awareness of the importance (and fun) of space travel.
While he probably can’t teach the most advanced courses on orbital dynamics, the stories and lessons that came out of Hadfield’s storied career will undoubtedly influence a generation of space explorers in ways that scientific knowledge could never do on its own. And that kind of teaching scales easily – for example, via Hadfield’s online course on space exploration on the MasterClass platform.
Role models are in many ways our most powerful form of teaching, because modeling is a medium of instruction that is far more scalable than any classroom. You can serve as a role model for hundreds, thousands, even millions of people at once. Role models transcend time and place – just look at the ways people like Nelson Mandela, Florence Nightingale, Martin Luther King Jr., and Margaret Hamilton continue to inspire people with their courage and selfless dignity long after their death.
Being a role model is a tremendous responsibility. People are looking to you to understand what it means to live a fulfilling, inspired life. They are in some sense modeling their life after yours, not just acquiring a narrow kind of expertise, which can be thrilling but also intimidating.
If you decide to accept the identity of a role model, people will sometimes put you up on a pedestal, mythologize your past, or treat your assertions as sacred doctrine. It comes with the territory. You’ll have incredible influence on others. It is your duty to use it wisely and humanely.
To be a role model is to teach primarily through your way of being in the world. People follow what you do more than what you say, which makes it possible to teach by example, as a living, breathing manifestation of what it means to have fully internalized a particular kind of expertise into your life. You may need to step back from the frontier of your field, but that’s okay, because by this point your network will be so extensive and influential that an endless stream of opportunities flows toward you from every direction. And by stepping back, you give young, ambitious upstarts the chance to shine.
When it comes to great leaders, you don’t need much of their time. With the greatest leaders, you don’t need any of their time. Imagine how far your message and your wisdom could spread, in time and space, if your method of instruction was how you lived your life.
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