From Teaching to Selling

The following story explains how Reshan and I slowly bridged the gap between work we were doing in schools and work we were seeing / experiencing / doing in the business world. It was an early indication that we should write the book that became Make Yourself Clear. It’s written in the third person because it was originally included in that manuscript.


In their book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, three professors devoted an entire chapter to what they call “illusions of knowing” (Brown, Roediger III, & McDaniel, 2014). Steve picked up this text, and this chapter in particular, because he was preparing to teach the play Oedipus to a group of 9th graders.  He wanted to skip the usual fare — plot, character development, poetic structure — and dig into the ways in which the main character’s ego and bias blinded him to what he clearly should have seen. Increasingly, for Steve, this seems to be a lesson worth teaching and learning.

Oedipus, the main character, begins by setting out to find a murderer and bring him to justice. Oedipus is known as a person who invests his considerable resources and competencies, first and foremost, in being a good citizen of Thebes. He wants to serve the people of Thebes and be known as a first-rate fixer. This behavior is important to the story others tell about him, and perhaps more critically, to the story he tells himself about himself.  

The main problem is that Oedipus, himself, is the murderer he seeks. So it’s a mystery story wherein the detective is seeking himself. However, it is also a story about human psychology, because Oedipus can’t find himself (back in roughly 430 b.c.) for the same reasons that some professors must still write a book for teachers (back in roughly 2014) that exhorts them to help students avoid illusions of knowing.

Each of us is an astounding bundle of perceptual and cognitive abilities, coexisting with the seeds of our own undoing. When it comes to learning, what we choose to do is guided by our judgments of what works and what doesn’t, and we are easily misled. (Brown, Roediger III, & McDaniel, 2014, p. 123)

The very mind that helps Oedipus, and any human being, to thrive also causes him, and us, to stumble, often making thriving a mere afterthought.

As Steve was grasping the combined insight of a Greek poet and modern day learning specialists, he was in the process of making the largest purchase in his life, a new home. And as he went through the buying process, he realized that he wasn’t searching for money, because, with his wife, he had saved what he needed to reach his goal. And he wasn’t searching for time, because he was a school administrator heading into the summer. He was searching for something else.

The teacher in Steve was looking for a teacher outside of Steve. More specifically, in this particular situation, the teacher was looking for a salesperson who was also a teacher and committed, in fact, to the same values as a good teacher. A salesperson-as-teacher would ensure that Steve saw things clearly; a salesperson-as-teacher would not be willing to trade on or exploit the asymmetry baked into the home-buying process.  

Good teachers help us to reduce errors in our thinking, help to bring us closer to reality in ways that help us to see and act with greater clarity and leverage.  In a sales sense, they would do so in a way that would promote symmetry in transactions, allowing buyers to make good decisions (good for us, good for the environment in which we are operating, good for others, etc.).

So when Steve met salespeople and business-people throughout and after the home-buying process — that is, when he met specialists looking to hawk their wares or designated agents looking to hawk the wares of specialists — Steve looked for teachers. Plumbers, attorneys, mortgage brokers, furnace mechanics, ductwork professionals, arborists, electricians, or their agents: there are always dozens of these people from which to choose.  And, at the same time, all these people have dozens of choices when dealing with a client. They can keep the client off balance and even in a position of fear, or they can help the client find balance and make calm and rational decisions. They can move quickly, hoping that speed will cause the buyer to make an emotional decision, using the faulty parts of his/her brain, or they can move slowly, helping the buyer to make an informed decision, using the correct parts of his/her brain.    

Steve didn’t look for a salesperson who could necessarily save him money (although that was always a nice perk). He looked for a salesperson who would make him a more empowered consumer, who would be present for him in human ways when he most needed human counsel. He looked for people, too, who would make him aware of the range of choices in front of him. In fact, anyone who wouldn’t take the time — without being asked — to teach him, to answer his questions, to expose his blind spots, didn’t get his business.  And never will again.

Organization Task

Today’s blog (break) is strictly organizational. Reshan and I are putting together a short e-book about digital etiquette, meetings, and things like that. And in honor of our iterative process, which is the only way we get anything done these days, I’m collecting some links below. We’ll use these when we extract the text in advance of further editing, formatting, beautifying, and shipping. (If you’re a daily reader, there’s nothing new here except the reminder that projects require time devoted exclusively to digging back through files, evaluating past work and artifacts, cutting and shuffling, rethinking, re-seeing, re-seeding, and casting aside.)

Catching Myself Being Lazy

Last week, during text or email exchanges with three separate people, I caught myself being lazy.

“You should definitely come over with your wife. What time does the All-Star game start?”

“What’s the difference between a LinkedIn Post and a LinkedIn Article?”

“I don’t know how to share a Twitter thread, so here’s a screenshot of part of what was said — you should look up the rest.”

Each communication is essentially a different version of the same idea:

“Instead of taking 35 seconds to Google something and learn about it for myself so that I can then share it with you and/or push our conversation into more fruitful and interesting territory, I’m going to assign a chore to you. Once you complete that chore, looking up what needs to be looked up, and get back to me, we can continue this conversation.”

That’s just bad conversational etiquette. In real life (IRL), it would be the equivalent of standing in your kitchen with someone and asking him to do things for you that you could just as easily do for yourself. In the physical world, it would be obvious that you were being lazy. In the digital world, that’s not always so obvious.

From now on, I’m going to try to only ask people questions — or assign people information chores — that I can’t quickly lookup online. At the very least, this will save them time. At the very most, it will honor their expertise and my faith in them.

As a side benefit, I bet that this practice will benefit me personally. I’ll learn more heading into conversations and exchanges and most likely advance those conversations and exchanges more efficiently because we won’t be covering ground covered elsewhere. We’ll be covering ground that only we — together — can cover. What else is a genuine relationship for?

Lead Like a Teacher

Like teachers, managers give assignments every week. A good teacher, and a good teaching-manager, knows that a good assignment benefits the recipient (the teacher or manager who receives the work) and the person who produces the work (the student or direct report). We often forget about the latter when we’re designing assignments because we’re focused on what we’re going to receive. We’re focused on how the product will shape our own work instead of the way the product will shape its producer moving forward.

One of my managers runs a weekly meeting with a leadership team. At many of these meetings, he asks us to “report out succinctly” to the rest of the group.

Certainly these reports serve two obvious functions:

First, they keep the manager apprised of what is going on in the organization so that he can either follow up or build his awareness around things about which he needs to know more.

Second, they improve the kinds of cross-department or cross-divisional communication that helps organizations to function smoothly and to spread good ideas. (It’s helpful, for example, if the head of marketing know that there’s something really interesting happening in a certain division, so that she can be sure to cover it appropriately. And it’s useful, from an innovation standpoint, when one division borrows a good, and tested, idea from another.)

When I started on this team, and I met with the manager, he told me that I should always expect to report at our team meetings. When I asked him what would happen if I didn’t have anything to report, he said that one of his pet peeves is when someone says they have nothing to report.

Though somewhat artificial, he admitted, reporting succinctly forces people to think very deeply about the work that they’re doing. If you’re going to report “at the right level” and with enough, but not too much, detail, you have to take the time to reflect on your work, to synthesize what you’re learning, to identify trends and themes, and to communicate in a manner that others can understand you well enough that they can then act on the information.

That’s a great, though simple, assignment because it’s built on sound teaching — it encourages depth of thought, reflection, synthesis, consolidation, communication, sharing, and ultimately, accountability.

It’s no surprise that this manager started as a classroom teacher; what’s possibly surprising is that, even as he’s ascended as a leader, he’s never really lost his teaching instinct or his best teaching moves. In fact, his teaching makes him the effective leader that he so clearly is.

Even in something as simple as a weekly report, he recognizes that the right assignment, properly applied, can help the learner-practitioner to grow and learn over time . . . can change the learner-practitioner over time. That’s why it’s a pet peeve for him if someone doesn’t report. To him, that’s the equivalent of saying, “I didn’t learn” or “I chose not to learn.”

If you manage others, you will frequently have to design assignments for them. When you do, don’t simply think about what it is that you want from the assignment and don’t simply think about the preferred output. Think also about how even very basic and routine assignments can and do shape the person completing them. And design accordingly.

The 5 Hat Racks = LATCH


According to architects, writers, designers, and assorted people who take time to jot things down on the Internet, Richard Saul Wurman posited that information can only be organized in one of the 5 Hat Racks (or LATCH).

When I learn something like this, I usually enjoy testing it out to see if it’s true / useful. For a brief time, then, the world will look a little bit different, a little bit more interesting, especially if I start to notice the principle everywhere.

More here.