“Those who can’t do, teach.” If you’ve been targeted to buy Bitcoin on Instagram or to flip a house with zero cash down, you’ve been inches away from the Internet’s snake oil. The “democratization of information” has created a cesspool of Hucksters encouraging you to wake up at 4 am so that you can quit your job to start a drop-shipping company while taking ayahuasca. I mean, if you’re so good at something, shouldn’t you be spending your time doing that thing? But, what if the opposite was true and the ability to teach was a dormant superpower?
Teach everything you know
The opposite of “those who can’t do, teach” is “Teach everything you know.” The writer and designer Paul Jarvis used this phrase in his book Company of One, which challenges the narrative that companies must be growth-fueled, sprawling enterprises. He argues that the knowledge in our heads is a flywheel of curiosity, clarity and collaboration that enables each one of us to create our own luck.
Teaching is a powerful skill that can help managers leverage their direct reports, high school students get noticed by VCs, salespeople develop trust, and entrepreneurs build products. And regardless of your age or your title, every single person has got something to teach.
1. Do you even understand the material?
Four year olds have a magical (and sometimes frustrating) way of being rapid-fire-question-asking-machines (Why is the sky blue? Why do we die?). Recently, my daughter asked me to explain the meaning of “fair” and I found myself in an unexpected game of Taboo;trying to explain a nebulous concept without using words like “equal,” “just,” or “balanced.” (Ultimately, a story about one person having more M&Ms than her did the trick.)
Teaching is a beautiful form of simplicity. One of my favorite procrastination destinations is the subreddit Explain like I’m Five (abbreviated as ELI5). Here you’ll find epic threads on everything ranging from climate change proofs to Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) explainers from uniquely skilled redditors.
This reminded me of my favorite interview questions from my finance days: “Could you explain [finance concept] to me as if I was a five year old?” The concept could be as simple as a stock (the classic lemonade stand answer) and as complicated as volatility (standing on a pier, wondering if the waves will hit you).
Nothing tests your understanding of a concept like the ability to explain it to someone who lacks the context and the jargon. Furthermore, teaching makes you flex other vital communication muscles: empathy, persuasion and storytelling.
2. Teaching creates leverage
Teaching amplifies your voice and gives you the ability to scale your message. It provides leverage. And in the professional world, there’s no better example of this than being a good manager. Great managers possess the uncanny ability to transmit their mental models and processes – and ultimately culture – through the rungs of an organization. And they do it in large part by teaching.
Andy Grove, the co-founder of Intel and author of the management classic High Output Management wrote very specifically about managerial leverage:
If a manager spends 12 hours preparing training for 10 team members that increases their output by 1% on average, the result is 200 hours of increased output from the 10 employees (each works about 2000 hours a year). Don’t leave training to outsiders, do it yourself.
Create leverage in everything you do
Another example of teaching as a form of leverage comes from Henry Ward, the CEO and founder of Carta. Every Friday Ward teaches a daylong class called Carta 101 to the company’s new employees. (How’s that for leverage?) Here’s a slide explaining the difference between “efficiency and leverage.”
Ward writes that efficiency is “minimizing effort for a given impact,” whereas leverage is “maximizing impact for a given effort.” So when the CEO teaches new employees, he’s rejected the notion that “those who can’t do, teach” and replaced it with “Create leverage in everything you do.”
Finally, First Round Capital VC and founder Bill Trenchard encourages their portfolio company CEOS to use “playbooks” to get the most of out of every day. For any task that is performed “more than three times” Trenchard recommends “writing the process down in detail” so that “you can hand off to someone else, so they can execute [it] the way you would.”
This type of leverage isn’t just limited to managers. Anyone can apply Trenchard’s approach in their personal lives with a simple question: “What question have I been asked more than 3 times?” The answer contains a teaching opportunity. All it takes is a few minutes to answer the question in a lightly formatted Google Doc and voila, you’ve immediately created leverage. I live by this practice, so here are a few examples that I encourage you to copy:
- Tips for new dads (Blog post)
- Atomic Habits Book Review (Blog post)
- A search engine optimization (SEO) checklist (Google doc)
- A list of all RadReader questions (Google doc)
- A podcast resource list (Evernote document)
- How to manage up (Slideshare presentation)
- Sri Lanka Travel Recommendations (Quip document)
(Note: I use Google Docs, Quip, and Evernote interchangeably)
3. Be of service to others
Teaching is a vessel to be of service to others. The ability to engage, curate, and educate is a special skill that’s a win-win for everybody involved.
David Perell, the founder of North Star Media told me that he sees teaching as “maximizing human welfare.” He adds that “so much of the knowledge in the world is locked up in peoples heads and one of the fastest ways we can accelerate progress is to encourage people to teach others and share information.”
The philosophy of being in service to you, the RadReader, motivates everything I do. In fact, deep in my core, if there’s some worthwhile bit of information – whether it’s how to set up a personal CRM or how to be vigilant about relationship resentment – I feel a calling to share it with you. That’s what motivated me to start the RadReads email newsletter and here’s the proof, the original email (note the date) that kicked off this wild life adventure.
More than two-hundred weeks later, being in service to you has opened up opportunities beyond my wildest dreams: coverage from major news outlets (CNN, Bloomberg, WSJ, Barrons), speaking gigs, consulting work and a rad roster of coaching clients.
And I’ve watched others cultivate this approach – both professionally and personally – with military precision. These are all examples from within the RadReads community:
- We Are Next: A community for students and jr. talent beginning their careers in advertising and marketing via @natalieykim
- Trapital: A blog and newsletter covering the business side of hip hop via @danruncie
- Wondering: A Q&A from readers about work and psychology via @AdamMGrant
- Why twitter is dope and how to use it: A deck on the ins-and-outs of social media mastery @nikillinit
- A guide to better sex for men: Yup, you read that right via @nateliason (who also writes extensive book reviews)
- How to conduct an annual review: A 4-step framework to reflecting on your life via @schlaf
- Industry-specific weekly digests (à la RadReads) covering Healthcare tech, real estate opportunity zones, and football data analytics
4. Build trust and authority
But if we go back to the hucksters and snake oil salesmen (and IG fitness models and nutritionists), is teaching everything you know really a service to others? Or is it just contributing to the Internet’s information detritus? And what makes YOU (or any one person) the authoritative voice on a topic?
I think there’s a distinction to be drawn between being an expert on, say AI (arguably a very small sample set) and a person seeking to understand the implications of AI on a specific industry. It’s important to know your niche and honor the limits of your own expertise.
The shared learning journey
But the frictionless nature of the internet has added a new dimension: you can bring people along for the ride on your own learning adventure. After all, isn’t learning a combination of discovery, curation, distillation, and analysis? And when approached with humility and respect, who wouldn’t want to hitch a ride on someone else’s learning journey? This is the playbook that both Shane Parish (with Farnam Street) and Ben Thompson (Stratechery) have employed with great success.
Paul Jarvis has also lived this strategy on his own blog and spells it out in Company of One:
In business these days, it’s not enough to just tell people you’re an authority – you’ve got to demonstrate your actual expertise by sharing what you know and teaching others. You build authority not by propping yourself up, but by teaching your audience and customers – so that they truly learn, understand, and succeed. When you make that happen consistently, you’re building the right kind of authority.
The fear of the “public record”
A lot of Gen X’ers and Boomers are apprehensive about learning in public. In this old-school mindset, they fear a permanent public record that will crucify them for past mistakes. That may be a small risk, but in a world of information abundance we should first remember that few people will care or notice (i.e. get over yourself). But more importantly, there’s a gigantic canvas for explaining where you may have gone astray.
Take Ben Thompson and his bold and wide-ranging and public predictions about tech. And some are wrong. On the Farnam Street podcast, Ben Thompson quipped, “I love to be right, which is why I always say when I’m wrong; because that’s the fastest and shortest way to be right.” He adds:
People are paying me money because they think what I write is worth reading. From that perspective, for me to come out and say, “I got this wrong…” and not only that, every time I get something wrong, I always try to recount what I was thinking when I got it wrong, what led me to make a mistake.
Scott Alexander from SlateStarCodex takes a statistical approach, setting a confidence interval (90%: “No terrorist attack in the USA will kill > 100 people”) and calibrating the results on his blog the following year:
5. Create your own luck
Imagine being 18 years old, tweeting about China (with barely any followers), and then days later sitting across the table from a prominent Silicon Valley VC. Here’s a tweetstorm by high school senior Kyle Yuan that broke through the noise and caught the attention of numerous venture capitalists:
Keith Rabois a partner at Khosla Ventures stumbled upon this commentary and “had no idea who [Kyle] was and just liked the content. On the North Star Podcast, Rabois shared the uniqueness Kyle’s tweets and how it led to a face-to-face meeting with the high school student:
He was able to separate himself from people who tweet about China (most of which is pretty undifferentiated) [because] he had a voice and unique insight. If you can find a unique voice in a space that’s pretty crowded, you can do well
Sharing droplets of knowledge is a simple way to expand the contact space so that luck can find you. Combine that with a dash of entrepreneurial spirit and you’d be amazed at the business opportunities that can arise.
Your rabbit hole, someone else’s treasure?
As a solopreneur, I often send myself down rabbit holes that often lead to nowhere. One of these was Search Engine Optimization (SEO) a strange mix of black magic, analytics, and intuition.
While researching SEO, I shared everything I was learning in a Google Doc; not from a place from expertise, but just so others could leverage my research. I shared it far and wide, with other entrepreneurs, my colleagues at Quartz, and on the RadReads discourse group. In that process, the Google Doc got forwarded to some startups and I was invited to do a paid consulting gig!
6. It’s good business
I know why you’re still reading. You’re here for the brass tax – the business case – about why one should invest all this time in other people’s education.
Salespeople often get a bad rap for being slick and transactional. But the best salespeople are exactly the opposite; in fact, you may not even realize that just by hanging with you, they’ve got something to sell to you. Jarvis argues that whether you’re a B2B seller, car dealer, or real estate agent, the best salespeople “honestly evaluate what someone needs and then teach them the value of what you’re selling.” He adds:
Sharing content and information is an effective way to begin a sales process because it helps a potential customer see what they need, why they need it, and then how your products can help solve their problems.
Test out a service-based consulting business
Consulting businesses can often get the stink eye for the simple reason that they don’t scale. But this constraint can be harnessed as an advantage, specifically centered around teaching. In the classic startup post Do things that don’t scale, Y Combinator founder Paul Graham actually encourages companies to start with consulting:
Sometimes we advise founders of B2B startups to take over-engagement to an extreme, and to pick a single user and act as if they were consultants building something just for that one user. The initial user serves as the form for your mold; keep tweaking till you fit their needs perfectly, and you’ll usually find you’ve made something other users want too. Even if there aren’t many of them, there are probably adjacent territories that have more.
Fellow entrepreneur Tiago Forte uses teaching to rapidly iterate and identify which digital courses he should develop. Borrowing from Eric Ries’ minimum viable product (MVP) framework, Forte sees teaching as the validation of the idea and demand, with the least amount of investment (i.e. time or money) at risk. On the Rad Awakenings podcast he described this iterative process:
One day you can run a workshop and then realize that it doesn’t work, so the next day do 1:1 consulting. It’s really easy to pivot. If all you have is a website describing your service, all you have to do is change the description on your website.
Teaching on the Internet is real
The size and openness of the Internet enables like-minded folks to converge around very granular topics and interests. Whether it’s about managing your digital content in Evernote, mastering Mailchimp, or rewriting your resume – many are hungry to deepen their knowledge around their niche.
Perell explained that the Internet was breaking down “the distinction between practitioners and educators” enabled in part by platforms like Teachable. He added:
Many practitioners are going on the Internet and teaching others, and building their brand in the process. Likewise, many educators are building schools online and becoming practitioners. In the next decade will see the best teachers make more than $1 million per year. Teaching on the Internet will become extremely lucrative.
And according to Teachable’s CEO, it turns out it won’t even take a decade:
Building an audience before a product
But the real long game is to grow a vibrant audience and community before you even build a product. The commodification of the tech stack has enabled the rise of “No code” startups, inverting the way traditional way in which businesses are typically built (Build product → market product.)
Ryan Hoover embodied this strategy with Product Hunt. The company began as an email newsletter only to become the de facto launching point for pretty much all new tech products. (It was ultimately acquired in 2016 for $20 mm by Angelist.) Hoover cites three specific advantages to building an audience first:
- Recruiting: When you’re pre-product + pre-traction, it’s difficult to convince anyone (technical or not) to join.
- User acquisition: Acquisition is difficult pre AND post-product. Sooner you can de-risk this the better.
- Research: Audience-building leads to customer development and a better understanding of who you’re building for.
Teaching everything you know is a mindset shift. Like anything, it requires taking the smallest first step and then watching the benefits compound over the long-term. But the real joy is in the creativity, collaboration, friendships, and curiosity that is the journey itself.