I consider myself as smart as the average person, and I have always done quite well in school — and I’ve been going to school, off and on, for most of my life. I’ve had good teachers and bad. The good teachers are a joy, the bad ones a misery.
I have found that the difference between a good teacher and a bad one is not how much the individual knows but how well he or she can teach. As a matter of fact, I have had teachers who were at the pinnacle of their expertise who couldn’t teach worth a damn. Why not? Because they didn’t know how to teach.
People like this expert know so much about their subject that they have lost the ability to remember what it was like when they didn’t know anything about it. They have lost the ability to put themselves in the position of the student who is so ignorant that the student doesn’t even know what questions to ask.
It’s like me telling you to do an appendectomy and that I’ll be right beside you in case you have any questions. Yeah, that will work, but perhaps not for the patient.
Years ago I went to work for a major aerospace company. While going through the hiring process, which included all sorts of classification interviews and even a physical exam, I became friendly with the guy next to me. When we finally completed the lengthy process, he and I were somehow assigned to the same department and the same supervisor. This was in the days when, instead of cubicles, the work force was situated in a large gymnasium-sized room with row upon row of desks lined up.
My friend and I were assigned desks next to each other at the end of two long rows. Our supervisor sat at a desk at the head of the rows about 10 desks away. We were told that the individuals immediately behind each of us were assigned to teach us the ropes and get us up to speed. So far so good.
This was back in the days before computers when various forms (and there were many of them) came in multiple copies and everything was written by hand. (Some of you may remember the days when those forms had bold instructions at the top that said, “PRESS HARD. YOU ARE MAKING SEVEN COPIES.” Each copy was usually a different color and was intended to be filed in a different place, such as Department File, Purchasing File, Accounting File, Production File — you get the idea. The original and the first two or three copies were legible, but it was usually impossible to read any of the rest.
Learning the system meant learning how to complete the forms, knowing where to file them and how to retrieve them when you needed to follow up on some issue. Within a week or so, my friend was working within the system and seemed to be getting to know how it worked. At the same time, I was still fumbling around, not really knowing what I was doing and feeling increasingly frustrated and stupid by the day.
Another few weeks and my friend was really into the system, hurrying back and forth and seemingly getting things done. I was still fumbling around and feeling more and more stupid and frustrated, and wondering what was wrong with me. I knew I was surely as smart as my friend. I found myself getting into the situation of trying to pretend that I knew what I was doing, occasionally asking my friend for help.
Eventually I quit the job, mostly out of frustration and boredom — and before they could fire me.
It was only years later that I realized that the problem was not me; it was the difference between the two experts behind each of us. One could teach, the other couldn’t.
— Paul Burri is an entrepreneur, inventor, columnist, engineer and iconoclast. He is not in the advertising business, but he is a small-business counselor with the Santa Barbara chapter of Counselors to America’s Small Business-SCORE. The opinions and comments in this column are his alone and do not represent the opinions or policies of any outside organization. He can be reached at email@example.com.