We all have chances to teach, but sometimes the opportunity is unwelcome.
Has anyone ever asked you an apparently simple question, and you found yourself unable to answer? Parents of small children are very familiar with this. It’s very tempting to fall back on platitudes or distraction to cover up the lack of an adequate response.
Examinations are formidable, even to the best prepared; for the greatest fool can ask more than the wisest man can answer.
Charles Caleb Colton
This week, I received a question about my writing process related to a story I posted on another website. It made me stop and examine my writing in a way I haven’t done before. Which lead me to remember this.
Before you can teach something, you have to understand it yourself.
Although watching an expert helps you to improve your own game, asking them to explain how they do it might not yield useful results. Because their skill is unconscious, they don’t have to think about how they hit the ball. They’re thinking about where the ball is going and where they need to be for the next shot.
Four stages to reaching the expert level
- You are unaware of the skill and the need for it – unconscious incompetence
- You are aware of the skill and have none – conscious incompetence
- You are aware of the skill and have some – conscious competence
- Your have high levels of skill and no longer think about how to achieve it – unconscious competence.
Think of playing a guitar. First, you don’t know that a guitar exists or what it’s used for. Then you see a guitar but don’t know anything about it. You start learning, slowly, and making many mistakes. You practice.
You know what you want to do, but you can’t do it. Yet.
Eventually, after enough practice, your fingers know what to do to make notes. You can play new songs that only exist in your head, or sight read a song you never heard before. You are focused on outcome, not process.
A good teacher is one who can help you move from one stage to the next. Not necessarily the most gifted in their field, they still have a priceless skill. They can analyse skills and transmit that knowledge to others. And the skill of effective critique is one we could all benefit from.
As writers especially, we crave the feedback that comes from objective analysis with specific advice on moving forward. I wrote here about giving and receiving critique gracefully.
We all have opportunities to teach, and thereby to learn more about ourselves. I’m not sure if my answer helped my enquirer, but it made me think critically about my own practice. That’s the most important lesson of all.
Therefore the old trope of “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” needs to be reframed. Who you speak to depends on what you’re trying to achieve. Inspiration and improvement are different activities.
And what about those who can’t do or teach? Lacking skill and insight but with plenty of envy, they become energetic armchair critics.
I bet even Michelangelo had someone saying, “Look, you missed a bit.”