The key to improvement? Teach.

I attended Swarm a couple of weeks ago. As a speaker not a guest, which was an interesting and fascinating experience, and one I’ll blog about in the next few weeks.

I’ve taught before, training groups, mentored people through photography, written tutorials etc. But I had never been to a conference as a speaker/workshop presenter before. It was an extraordinary experience to go through. Primarily, piecing together what I wanted to talk about as a first step. What expertise do I have that matters? Which pieces are important?
And then I realised why teaching, and mentoring matter so much. It’s easy to recall those times when we didn’t know what we didn’t know.

The old adage about the stages of learning…

  1. Unconscious Ignorance – You dont know enough to know what you dont know
  2. Conscious ignorance – You know enough to know there are gaps in your knowledge
  3. Conscious knowledge – You know enough, and you think about it/work to use the knowledge
  4. Unconscious knowledge – You know enough and dont think about how, you just do it.

Well the last one covers more than we realise. It’s not just about being able to apply the knowledge you’ve learned without thinking about it. it’s the new skills and information built from experience. The problems you don’t realise you’ve solved. It’s something akin to a real life version of the Phd (real life meaning out in the world at large and outside academia, not a mockery of Phd’s). Phd students literally produce new work. You create something new in your field, do the research etc. You literally enhance and improve the field before you’re allowed to have a Phd in it. An extraordinary concept.

Well, we all need to do it.


One of the things I took away from Swarm was a sea of knowledge, and not from the presenters. You can read the amazing things they shared on Twitter under #swarmconf, what I took away was the knowledge I didn’t know I had. The questions I was asked. The workshop and meeting people was a two way street. I shared information on ranks and titles systems, why brand communities fail over independent ones. And I gained knowledge from the questions I was asked.

Relating a specific answer to real life experience and quantifying an answer is an amazing process to be a part of. That problem I faced and solved seems simple with the knowledge I had, but the problem itself seemed invisible. It happened, I did it. But by being asked “how did you address X”, I could revisit. Review. Resolve. And then after I came home, refine. My hastily scrawled notes on a question and my answer leads into process review and changes. Someone asking me what to do has helped them. They have the answer I used to solve the same problem. But I now have the chance to review and tackle it again. The next time this problem comes up, I’ve had more time. I can do better. I can solve it better, faster. I can be more prepared.

Leads us into… the ultimate path to improvement.


Is there someone who wants your help, someone who can do something with your assistance?
Is there something you’ve got the skills to pass along?

Keep in mind, this isn’t about perfection, mentoring and assisting people isn’t done by experts, it’s valuable from anyone with experience. What about the things you don’t know, or the wrong turns you took? Relax, you’re mentoring a person not a robot. They’ll take some of your advice, they’ll reject other parts. They will think and piece it together on their own.

But what you gain from it is… almost immeasurable.
You’re getting a positive glow within, we all like to help right?
You’re getting better at YOUR job. Being questioned is a good thing. Sometimes we don’t know WHY we do things, sometimes we know why, but we are using the first answer we thought of, not the best one.
You’re gaining a supporter. What happens 3, 6, 12 months from now with your protege? What about the skills they build from what you taught them? When will they be ready to help you with something?

I’m mentoring someone who is building a community. But it’s more than that, it’s my technical skills in software and code, it’s advice on design and UX, it’s pointing them at a thousand resources and things I’ve encountered with information I wish I had at some point in time. It’s strengthening my skills as I help and get asked questions for clarity.

I’m mentoring someone, but I’m going to come through this just as improved as they are.

Want to really improve at what you do? Start teaching someone else how to do it.

And a phrase I repeat often and try to live by? What use is knowledge if you aren’t sharing it?

, , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply