in Life Optimization

Teach Your Learnings

I saw Austin Kleon, subversive author of Steal Like an Artist: 10 things nobody told you about being creative speak at SXSW this year about his latest book Show Your Work. This simply titled volume boils down to exactly what the title says – share with the world the work you’ve done. Oddly, this technique requires pointing out.

He’s not advocating posting all your personal notes on Flickr and leaving it at that. Rather, he wants you to turn your work into a lesson of sorts – repackage it so that it becomes something of value to any viewer. Whether it’s original art or a remix of something else (which everything is), it’s important to make your work both visible and comprehensible.

If you don’t have work, share what you’re consuming! Share the media that you look at everyday, and you become a thought leader without any additional work on your part. But when it’s shared, you become an authority on the matter and a lens through which others can filter the fire hose of information that is the internet today. Indeed, Austin notes that sharing the work of others is the first step towards sharing your own.

Especially, he encourages turning around immediately after learning something yourself and teaching that concept to others. Whether it’s a new process, thought framework, or nugget of information, if you summarize it in your own words and teach it to others, it’s a win win for everybody. Here’s why:

1)It provides a student’s eye perspective of the material

The way that you phrase something, and the methods you choose to help teach it, are unlike those of anyone else. That slight difference in approach may be what it takes to help another student understand a tricky concept that went over their head when phrased in another teacher’s words. (I know this certainly was the case when Khan Academy single handedly let me pass Calculus 102)

Plus, since you just learned this material, you are not yet corrupted by the complacency and understanding a vast knowledge base offers. Experienced teachers may glaze over small details because they know them so well, or because they are so used to thinking about the material that it is second nature. But you are a fresh student who has just started digesting the information, and thus can help present it to other students in a more approachable manner.

2)It helps you learn better

Oppenheimer coined the phrase “The best way to learn something is to teach it”, but it’s oft repeated today. When you are forced to spell out the mechanics of a process to someone else, you are simultaneously spelling them out for yourself, which helps both you and them understand things better. Sometimes you have a slight grasp on a concept but don’t fully know each and every aspect of it – explaining it to someone else will help flesh out all the fuzzy parts.

This technique reminds me of the hedge fund Bridgewater. Bridgewater is unlike most organizations (and especially hedge funds) in that it is completely transparent, and completely flat. Every (non proprietary) decision,  accounting fact, and part of their business is laid bare for all of the employees to see, which means that everyone is accountable for their movements, and everyone can learn from past mistakes  by looking up relevant information.

Even more impressively, there is no hierarchy at Bridgewater, which means anybody can question the decisions of others. This leads to interesting situations like when they hired the former Secretary of the Treasury, who on his first day at work was asked by an intern why he had made a certain decision. At first the ex-Secretary was enraged that such an underling would dare to question him, but he knew he had to answer as per protocol. Thus, he was forced to explain his rationale for the decision, thereby elucidating his own reasoning and providing the intern with valuable insight. Because he has to ‘teach’ his reasoning to anyone who asks, all of his decisions are more thought out.

Of course, I should mention that Bridgewater is also one of the largest and most successful hedge funds in the world, with over $120 billion in assets managed . Don’t you think their flat transparency has something to do with that?

3)It’s easy!

Showing your consumption and teaching it to others, are only a few steps past consuming that media in the first place. You’ve already done the hard part of learning it yourself – nothing is stopping you from spreading that knowledge further except sloth. Just slap together the notes you took on the subject, add some of the thoughts you had while learning it, and you’re done!

Such is the philosophy behind my blog and my writing – I’m showing my work, and teaching what I’ve learned. I’ve been told by friends that I am a good writer, which was a surprise to me because all I have ever done is put my thoughts down into print. It’s not like they’re gaining additional value once they leave my head – the difference is  that they’re now public. By sharing my work and teaching what I see to others, I gain value from it as a portfolio and a thought organization method, while the audience gains prefiltered content.

What’s holding you back from showing your work? What have you learned recently that you can teach to others?