Teaching: an Overloaded Word

One thing I feel people get wrong about “Be the Master” is around teaching.

The word “teaching” gets a bad rap in many organizations, because nearly everyone immediately visualizes a classroom environment. They start to worry about resources, like where they’ll find room for it, and how they’ll set aside time for everyone to basically take off work and go into class. That’s not what teaching should mean, but I get that all of our cultural experiences tell us that’s what it is.

“Mentoring” gets more love in most organizations, but I still dislike it. Mentor was a dude in “The Odyssey,” and his student wasn’t named “Mentee.” And mentoring STILL creates that toxic “teacher-versus-student” vibe, where one person is demonstrably better than the other.

In most true apprenticeships, teaching isn’t a formal thing you set aside time for, go into a different room for, and so on. Teaching isn’t one person being set above another. In a true Master/apprentice relationship, it’s just people working together. One of them likely has more experience than the other, but they can both learn from each other.

When I worked as an aircraft mechanic apprentice, I worked alongside a journeyman or Master mechanic. They taught me a lot, much of which wasn’t in our extensive manuals on how to assemble the aircraft. The “tricks of the trade,” so to speak. Yet even as a first-year apprentice, I could contribute, because I was never made to feel like I was in a traditional classroom environment where my instructor was “superior” to me. A good example: there are a couple of hard-to-reach spots in an F-14, and you have to snake your hand up through machinery to install cotter keys in the end of bolts. It’s hard, because you can’t really get any tools in there, so you have to bend the end of the cotter key by hand. I suggested snaking a piece of safety wire up and round the cotter key, and then yanking down on it to bend the key’s “leg” down. “Huh,” the guy I was working with said. “Let’s try it.” It worked, and it called a couple other mechanics over to show them.

If you read “Timothy the Blacksmith” again in “Be the Master,” you’ll see that Timothy and Edmund learned from each other, and though Timothy was in the “superior” position in the smithy. THAT is what apprenticeship and Mastery is all about. It’s teaching in that it’s knowledge transfer, but it’s not a class, it’s not a “lunch and learn” session, and it’s not “mentoring.” It’s simply working alongside someone, showing them what to do but also letting them actually do it – and paying attention to their observations. Apprentices often bring a fresh, unbiased view to their work, and it’s useful to have them articulate that view. It’s a good way to have “ah-ha!” moments and change your perspective on something that you’ve just gotten in a rut about.

A true Master/apprentice relationship doesn’t require you to take time away from work to teach; you teach AS PART OF that work. Working and teaching as there exact same thing. Sure, it takes a little longer to get things done, because you’re letting your apprentice do some of the work, and they’re just learning how. But it’s nothing like hauling everyone into a classroom and talking at them for a few days, hoping they remember it all, and then tossing them onto the job. Because apprentices get to work right along their Master, and because they get an opportunity to make mistakes (which their Master will catch and correct), they actually learn faster and more thoroughly than the “tried and true” classroom approach.

It’s 30 years later and I can STILL absolutely remember which actuator in an F-14 needs that safety wire trick.

Mastery: More than Just Teaching

I recently returned from a vacation in Europe, where I met a wonderful woman named Lucy. Lucy is a sign language interpreter, and works as an independent contractor through an agency that handles her bookings. She’s successful – so much so that she’s able to pick and choose her jobs, which is wonderful.

We talked a bit about her industry, and because it’s been on my mind so much lately, we talked a bit about my apprentice/Master spiel. It occurred to me that her industry in particular is one where Mastery should be a critical, embedded, and expected part of life, although at present, she told me, it isn’t. She pointed out the extensive training and classes that she’s taken over the years to build up her abilities.

But I asked a pointed question: were those classes the only thing she’d needed to get to where she was today?

No, she answered. Of course not. The classes were good for building her sign language vocabulary, but a good interpreter also injects a lot of expression into their work. I’ve seen this myself, in presentations where – for example – an interpreter is signing the national anthem. Their body is conveying more than just words, it’s also conveying the meaning of those words. It’s expressive, exactly like how the tone of my voice conveys more meaning than just the words I’m saying. Signing is speaking, and so it makes sense that it conveys as much emotion and intent as it does words.

So I asked her where she’d learned that expressive side of her work. She kind of shrugged, and said she’d picked it up as she went along. And then – we’d had a drink or two, so this wasn’t as macabre as it’ll seem when you read this – I asked what happens when she dies, or when she’s too old or uninterested to continue in her profession. She kind of blinked. THAT, I said, is what apprenticeships and Mastery is all about.

Mastery is not just teaching a class to some colleagues. Classes, along with books, videos, and other “formal” means of instruction, are fine for conveying the base knowledge of a topic. They’re fine for bringing in a certain amount of the instructor or author’s experiences, and sharing those. But they’re not Mastery. Mastery is where you work alongside someone, helping them pick up all the stuff that’s locked up in your head. The expressiveness of your job, if you will. The emotion of whatever topic you’re helping them learn. The things you can’t teach in a class, or write down in a book, or convey in a video. Sure, Lucy could create a series of videos that focused on the expressive side of her work, but it’s not the same as working with someone.

Every job, every profession, every topic has these “hidden” facets. The things we’re expected to just “pick up” as we go. And because we never formalize teaching those things, because we tend to be so focused on the “technical” side of what we teach, we tend to lose those “personal” pieces over time. Each generation has to re-discover them, and re-invent their wheel. It’s the little flick of a wrist when you’re signing a particular word, or the extra step you take when you’re configuring a computer, or the specific, light touch you use on the car’s brakes when the road is wet. They’re things someone can only learn by experiencing them, and that someone can learn best when they’re doing it alongside an accomplished Master.

So as you’re thinking of your own ability to serve as Master to someone else, don’t think so much about the “formal” stuff you can teach them. Stuff that’s already in books and videos and classes; think instead about all the things you know those books and videos and classes miss. The subtle things that aren’t, and can’t be, written down. The knowledge locked up in your head, that someone else is supposed to just “pick up.” Then work with your apprentice audience to help convey those things to them. Mastery isn’t rote; it’s personal.

Define Yourself

This is an excerpt from Be the Master: 2019 Edition. You can participate in the development of this new edition by purchasing the e-book at Leanpub.

One of the things in Be the Master is a series of steps for moving toward your own success and Mastery. The third of those is to Define Yourself, and this excerpt offers some advice.

This is the step where you decide who you want to be. It’s hugely important that you be thorough. For example, I’d had an opportunity to write a book applicable to my industry. That opening exposed me to a whole group of people — book authors, conference speakers, and the like — that I generally wanted to emulate. After a couple of years, though, I still felt unfocused. It took some serious sitting down and thinking, and I finally came to the conclusion that I wanted my career to closely emulate a specific person in my industry. That decision led me to really lay out who I wanted to be — not just a copy of that other person, but what I wanted to do differently. I also needed to fill in some details that weren’t apparent about that other person’s life.

For example, you might include, in your definition of yourself, things like “I always make it to my kids’ soccer game,” or “I always make it to church, every week,” or “in addition to my career, I play the piano fairly well.” I suppose you could think of these as life goals, but I don’t — a “goal,” for me, is a thing you achieve, and then you’ve done it. My “self-definition” isn’t something I accomplish and then move on from; it’s as complete a list as possible of who I am every day.

And you needn’t start with a person you admire and want to emulate; that’s just what got me thinking in this direction. You might create your self-definition entirely from scratch, or you might pick bits and pieces of things you admire about a variety of people you know.

Take some time to review your self-definition, when you’re done, because there are often compromises and conflicts. For example, if you’re the type of person who puts in a hard 10-hour day, makes it to hockey practice three nights a week, attends the opera once a month, and volunteers at a soup kitchen every weekend — you may have overloaded yourself a bit. Your self-definition needs to be possible, or it won’t come to pass.

Manage Your Time

This is an excerpt from Be the Master: 2019 Edition. You can participate in the development of this new edition by purchasing the e-book at Leanpub.

I both love and hate to-do lists. I love them, because for me they’re a decent way to prioritize what I need to do from moment to moment, and a way to make sure I’m not forgetting things. I use my to-do list in conjunction with my email inbox and my calendar. Any item in my inbox is a to-do, which is why I value “Inbox Zero” so much. And I schedule time to work on to-do items. That way, I know when I’m supposed to be doing things, and I can assign meaningful “due dates” (and times) to each to-do item. It’s a little OCD. I get that.

But that’s not why I hate to-do lists. I hate them because I see so many people with those Dayrunner books, making themselves lists, and then never working the list. Stuff never gets “done.” Frankly, it’d drive me absolutely batshit with anxiety. Which is an important point: I’m so OCD about my to-do list representing actual things I need to do that I’m very careful not to make the list overly granular, and very careful not to make the list overloaded. I plan a couple of weeks in advance at most, usually. Otherwise, the list itself just starts to look huge, and unapproachable, and monstrous, and I stress over it.

I also manage my time very aggressively. If someone’s 5 minutes late for a scheduled meeting, and hasn’t let me know that the meeting will be delayed, I’m out of there. That’s my maximum tolerance for wasted time. I also track wasted time. Not the meeting-started-late wasted time, but the time I waste myself.

Oh, yeah. I waste time. Everyone does. You have to. Human brains demand distraction from time to time, just like our bodies do better if we occasionally stand. I swear, I don’t know why Apple Watch reminds me to breath (have a hypothalamus, I’m good on respiration), and why it can remind me to stand, but it can’t remind me to go fool around on Facebook for a few minutes. Actually, I’ll tell you why: most people start in on Facebook and never stop. Or maybe not Facebook, but something like it. You know what I mean. Maybe your poison is YouTube or Twitter or Chive or whatever, but you’ve got your pet distraction, and you know you spend too much time on it.

Track that time. I use a “cumulative timer” (like https://www.amazon.com/Mark-My-Time-7000149-Digital-Bookmark-Green/dp/1782700234/). When I’m about to start wasting time, I start it. I let myself go for five or ten minutes, and then stop it. At the end of the week (or day, whatever), I make a note in my workbook about how much time I wasted that week. This isn’t, “oh, that meeting was a waste of time,” this is time I have chosen to waste. Over a few weeks, I start to find my baseline for wasted time, and so long as I’m tracking around that, I know I’m doing okay. Too little wasted time and I analyze my week to see if I’m feeling stressed, or if I felt less productive, or whatever. Too much, and I focus more on not wasting as much time next week. Wasted time has a budget for me, and I try to spend about the same amount each week. When I’ve done this with some colleagues, informally, I’ve found that they waste about three times more time than they’d estimated for themselves. That’s a lot of “lost” time, in which you could be doing other things to help achieve your success.

That perception is a big part of why I track my time, too. I don’t want to run around thinking I’m wasting 30 minutes a day when in fact I’m burning three hours! Tracking my wasted time takes me out of the realm of belief, and into the safer (for me) realm of fact. If I don’t like the facts I find, I can make adjustments.

I also have a close-the-loop session toward the end of every day. If I scheduled an hour to work on a white paper, for example, then I just check myself at the end of the day. Did I get through it in an hour? Or did it take two hours? Was I interrupted in the middle, and forced to re-set my mind, or did it just legitimately take two hours? The point of this isn’t to punish myself, or even to try and make myself faster. Some things just take what they take. The point is to educate myself, to better understand how I work, and how long things take. If I know that I can produce 2,000 written words in an hour, then I can start to make better estimates of how much work I can handle. If a new writing project comes in, I can see where on my schedule it will fit, and have a more realistic estimate of when I can have that work done. This helps me set better expectations, and do a better job of not promising something I can’t deliver on. In the beginning, I kept a note on how long various common workloads would take me. For example, I know it takes me about 6 hours total to produce a slide deck for a 1-2 hour conference presentation. I know it takes about an hour to produce 2,000 written words, although I can only do that for about four hours before I need a solid break. These days, I’ve gotten so used to some of these that I don’t need to refer to that note anymore, but it’s still sitting on my computer someplace.

Time sometimes doesn’t always go the way you want. For example, I’ve gotten out of bed some mornings, planning to write 10,000 words or so during the day, and found myself utterly not in the mood. There’s no point forcing it; I’d just write crap and have to start over later anyway. So I rearrange my schedule. I move some stuff into the current day that I’m more in the mood for, and find a place for that writing to happen. But the point is that I actually rearrange things. I don’t just blow off the writing and hope I can squeeze it in someplace. I manage the problem, rather than ignoring it.

For me managing time isn’t the same as micro-managing time. I’m not trying to tell myself what to do, or force myself to be faster. I’m mainly observing the facts on the ground, and then building my planning process around that.


Respect the Yellow Line

The following is an excerpt from Be the Master: 2019 Edition. This is an in-progress edition, and you’ve invited to read along as it’s developed. It’s available now.

Disney recognizes something important about the human beings who work in its theme parks (I know, I use a lot of Disney analogies in this book). What they recognize is that _familiarity breeds contempt_.

What Disney sells, in its theme parks, is _escape_ and _entertainment_. It’s not just about rides; it’s also about an environment. In their lingo, it’s a _show_, and shows, like all forms of fiction, require the willing suspension of disbelief. You _know_ that princess is really just some college kid, but you _choose_ to participate in the show and treat her like Cinderella or whatever. A maxim of fiction is that, in order for the audience to maintain their willing suspension of disbelief, you have to avoid chucking anything out-of-story at them, like a pissed-off janitor who just got dumped by her boyfriend the night before and who doesn’t really want to be at work scraping gum of the asphalt this afternoon.

Continue reading “Respect the Yellow Line”