Why true professionals teach what they know

December 6th, 2013 by Bob Bly

If you believe, as so many do, that “those who can, do; those
who can’t, teach” – get it out of your head now.

The fact is that those at the top of their profession are often
the most active not only as practitioners but also as both
students and teachers.

The last time I wrote about this, I received a huge amount of
e-mail from my subscribers and Facebook friends.

They overwhelmingly agreed that (a) the “those who can’t, teach”
adage is absurd and (b) teaching others what you know is an
integral and important activity for most professions.

Here’s just a sampling….

WB: “If nobody who knew what they were doing showed others how
it’s done, then the only way to learn would be by trial and
error or from those who have never been a success at it.”

BW: “Teaching is my greatest joy. I love to learn about a wide
range of subjects. When I share what I’ve learned, as do you, I
learn even more. Plus, I form new bonds with those I teach,
whether in an informal way or in a well-organized workshop. It’s
all about widening one’s perspective and personal growth.”

BM: “I’ve had several careers and taught how-to courses and
seminars in all of them. I think it made me a better doer, and
it enhanced my business credibility and income.”

DG: “As consulting engineers we teach what we do, and we make
good money at it. In fact, it set both of us up for retirement
some years ago. At this point in my career, I actually enjoy the
teaching more than the consulting. Nothing like seeing someone
‘get it.'”

JG: “We teach what we wish to learn.”

ES: “And we learn best what we choose to teach.”

LW: “I have a strong background in the arts. Many very
successful musicians in classical music and jazz have enjoyed
the psychological effects of teaching and watching novices
develop. I could go on and on naming them: the violinist Isaac
Stern, the jazz pianist Hank Jones.

“A few years back I helped edit and rewrite a biography of a
famous British classical pianist, Ruth Nye, who is now a very
famous teacher. The principal theme of her biographer’s book was
that Ruth herself studied with one of the greatest pianists of
the 20th Century, Claudio Arrau who himself was also widely
known as a great teacher.

“This is true in all the arts. The Dutch painter Peter Lastman
was famous for his own work, but also for being Rembrandt’s
teacher. Hollywood is rife with examples of actors who taught
other actors (ever listen to the many thank-you’s in an Oscar
acceptance speech?).

“It’s true in sports too. I have cousins in professional
baseball and football management who talk about examples of
apprenticeships all the time. In our own business, Clayton
Makepeace is a glorious example of a man who has made fabulous
money as a copywriter and as a man who has derived joy (and
financial recompense) for being a great teacher.”

My own experience: every time I teach a class, which I did for
years at New York University and The Learning Annex, I feel I
have learned even more than the students – and my students tell
me they have learned a lot.


Bob Bly

P.S. It always saddens me when I meet someone who thinks both
teaching and learning are beyond them.

Many years ago, at a writer’s conference, I sat next to a fellow
attendee. We were both perusing the conference brochure,
selecting the breakout sessions we would go to.

I noticed they had a session on selling a nonfiction book to a
major publishing house, and to make conversation, I mentioned to
her that it interested me.

She turned up her nose and said haughtily, “That might be good
if you are a beginner, but I have already published two books.”

I said nothing and smiled. Back then, I had written only 50
books … and I was eagerly looking forward to attending the
session to see what tips I could pick up. I guess they worked,
because I have written over 30 more books since then.

As my colleague seminar leader Paul Karasik often says to me,
“School is never out for the pro” – and that’s true whether it
means being a student or a teacher.


This entry was posted on Friday, December 6th, 2013 at 9:22 am and is filed under General. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

16 responses about “Why true professionals teach what they know”

  1. Sickle said:


    How can I learn if I don’t teach?

  2. Jen @ Daycare In Demand said:

    Great post, Bob. On a related note, I often find that people tend to discount what they know/do best simply because they’re so adept at it; it’s easy to forget that not everyone has those skills and knowledge. So if you’re thinking you don’t know enough to teach a class, in other words, think again – you almost certainly are more expert than you think you are.

  3. Susanna Hutcheson said:

    One of the most rewarding experiences of my life was teaching a writing class at Los Medanos College in California. I don’t think I”ve ever felt more appreciated and respected and I was so honored to get letters from students thanking me for what I had done for them.

    At that time I was much younger with far less experience. But I had enough experience and enough enthusiasm to help others. And I don’t think I could have imparted that help to others if I couldn’t myself perform that which I taught and perform it very effectively.

  4. Utfifa.com said:

    In the teaching process, will encounter a variety of problems, the students will have a variety of ideas that relate to various fields, so the professors to absorb all kinds of knowledge to meet the students’ curiosity

  5. futcoinsbuy said:

    She turned up her nose and said haughtily, “That might be good
    if you are a beginner, but I have already published two books

  6. Don Wallace said:

    The problem I have with teaching is finding a receptive, engaged audience that deserves to be educated.

    I am coming to this conclusion as a former idealist who believed that knowledge should be free, to (now) a cynical older person who firmly believes that most people expect (and demand) knowledge transfer to be effortless.

    In the corporate world I would have people ask me “how the heck do you ****** as well as you do?” And they’d expect a 60 second summary. If I went over time they’d wave me off and say “Don, you’re just too brilliant to teach me, and I have other things to do.”

    And in my last contract IT gig the guy I worked with assiduously avoided learning the base code being developed from me or asking questions. His tender ego couldn’t tolerate the information transfer. So he wasted his time OTJ and told everyone I was sealing him out.

    Today I’ll teach for one of three reasons: to promote my business, or for direct pay, or if someone would really benefit and they are deserving of the investment.

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  13. Christopher Nolan said:

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  15. Christopher Nolan said:

    This is true in all the arts. The Dutch painter Peter Lastman
    was famous for his own work, but also for being Rembrandt’s

  16. John Plunkett said:

    I completely agree. The only reason I own my own business now is because a professional was kind enough to take the time to teach me about business. We are all capable of learning for ourselves, but why relearn what someone else has already experienced?

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    Fort Lauderdale Party Bus

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