Continuous Learning and Continuous Teaching

Learning, teaching, and doing are all connected as part of the same process. This process produces the confidence that, over time, dissolves guilt and fear.

This note is part of a series on the nature of confidence. Read parts one and two here.

“Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” -George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman, 1905
“If you want to master something, teach it.” -Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize in Physics, 1965

In the last two notes, I’ve talked mostly about guilt, fear and anger and how they relate to confidence. This note is primarily about joy.

Here’s a framework for thinking about human knowledge. At one end is knowing nothing, and at the other end is knowing everything:

None of us are at 100 or 0 on this spectrum, except God and Jon Snow. For most of us it looks like this:


The Value of Learning

We take it as a given that learning new things is valuable. Hardly anyone finds this controversial. But why is it valuable?

1)      The obvious answer is that learning new things will help us do things that we want or get things that we want. Learning how to write software will help you get a well-paid job at a prestigious company. Learning how to sell will get you deals for your business. Learning marketing will get you clients for your coaching practice, etc.

2)      But there’s a second reason why learning is valuable, and the reason is that learning is fun. It’s not always fun, but it can be fun. One of the most thrilling sensations I have experienced in my life is trying to understand something, noodling on it, wrestling with it, not understanding, getting frustrated, giving up, trying it again days or weeks later, still not getting it, and then suddenly one day I wake up and everything clicks.

I am certain that everyone has experienced this feeling, even though you may not have noticed it in the moment. It’s the “aha” moment. At a minimum, you probably felt it for the first time when you were a year old and mastered the ability to walk for the first time. That is not the same type of fun as going on a roller coaster or watching a great movie, but it is fun, and the underlying emotion is joy. It’s the joy of victory and triumph over a challenge.

The good news (there’s no bad news) is that we have unlimited opportunity to experience this joy over the course of our lives:

The Value of Teaching

Most of what you’ll read about learning stops there.

I posit that teaching is just as valuable as learning and is the natural next step of learning. Obviously, this means I subscribe to the Richard Feynman school of thought rather than the George Bernard Shaw view. Represented visually:

I see teaching as valuable for three reasons:

1)      I’m sure the following isn’t true for everyone, but it is true for me. On the “about” page for this blog I say that I write mostly to organize my own thoughts. I’ve realized over the years that saying things out loud often helps me to find insights that are new for me. It’s when I’m explaining something to a person that I sometimes put two and seven together and get nine. I’m not sure I’d be able to generate those flashes of insight at that pace without the interaction with another human being.

Feynman’s point about teaching something forces you to master it backwards and forwards relates to this, in my view.

2)      Teaching is fundamentally an act of giving. Going back to the aha moment, I feel just as good seeing the lightbulb go off for someone else as I do for myself. Part of that is the inherent joy of giving and part of it is empathy—I can feel the pain of others and I can also feel their joy. I know how I feel happy when something clicks for me, and I can feel the happiness of others when it clicks for them.

You have probably read a lot of life advice about the merit of service, giving, causes bigger than yourself, working for the benefit of others, etc., and how all that leads to a sense of peace for yourself. I believe all of that. There is something about helping others that makes us as humans just naturally feel good. Scarcity, insecurity and fear often get in the way of that innate altruism, but we all have that desire to help. That desire is worth indulging and will come out naturally once we can create safety for ourselves.

3)      Being able to teach something builds and reinforces confidence. When you teach something to someone, and you see that light bulb go off for them, not only do you experience the joy of giving, you also gain proof that what you have given is valuable (countering guilt) and that you are better at it than you think you are (countering fear).

By stepping into guilt and fear, we dissolve them. The evidence piles up so high that even your powerful limiting beliefs, negative mindsets and destructive narratives can’t ignore it.

Some people feel anger and frustration at the prospect of teaching. This anger is the product of expectations. I’ll discuss this in a future note.

Continuous Learning and Continuous Teaching

Fortunately, this process never stops. I drew this picture in MS Paint which is absolutely hideous and yet I feel inspired just looking at it:

Confidence in your own ability to grow comes from observing your growth path. Teaching is proof that you know something. As you move higher and higher up the teaching curve, guiding more and more advanced people in higher-level concepts, you collect a body of evidence about your own growth path. Your mind starts to say to itself, “look how far I’ve come.”

Teaching does not necessarily mean in a university! Coaching and mentoring in the workplace, or Boy Scouts or whatever, is also teaching. When you get promoted to senior product lead, it’s about teaching people to do the job that you just left. This continues all the way up to CEO.

Teaching step 2 helps you to master it. Mastery brings confidence. Confidence at mastering step 2 produces the courage to take on step 3. You hold out your hand to help the next person climb the mountain. Joy begets more joy. There is no limit for you.

The Value of Doing

I’ll wrap up with some thoughts on the value of doing.

Just as I see teaching as part of learning, I also see doing as part of learning. This is where George Bernard Shaw gets it wrong because he assumes teaching and doing are mutually exclusive. They are not.

I used to teach finance at NYU. My mentor in academia, Sir Mervyn King, once advised me to never become a full-time academic because my value in the classroom was that I had personally done all of the stuff I talked about in class. Even if my identity shifts to being a “writer” or a “teacher,” I do not want to stop doing the stuff I teach and write about. The doing is just too valuable.

The frame looks like this:



Journal on the following or discuss with a friend.

1)      Noticing

What emotion does the prospect of learning or teaching bring up for you?

Even if you feel avoidant about the prospect of learning or teaching (a fear response), that’s fine. Just notice whatever’s there.

2)      Inquiry

Was there something in the past that you struggled to master, but eventually did? It doesn’t have to be a big thing. What’s the feeling associated with overcoming the challenge?

How might another person feel if you helped them overcome a challenge? How might you feel watching them cross the finish line?

3)      Action 

Doing and teaching reinforce our learning. Approach the following with the mindset of a scientist conducting an experiment.

What is something that you want to learn, teach, or do that you’ve been putting off? If you’ve half-learned something new, can you commit to putting it into action, or showing someone else how to do it?

After you put it into action, or teach it to someone else, how do you feel?

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