When Is Something Worth Teaching?

This month I’m posting every day, picking the top voted reader question and answering it. With 37 votes, submitted by Andrew Holloway, is:

When do you know that you have something worth saying or teaching?

I often find myself caught between two competing thoughts: that I don’t know enough to help anyone, and that I should help anyone I can by speaking/writing to others about my experiences or how to do something. As a speaker and writer, was there a point where you felt you were “qualified” to speak or write? Did it evolve over time, or arrive at a moment?

The French Coin Drop is the easiest magic trick in the world to learn yet I never run out of people who don’t know how to do it. Even the most basic unit of knowledge will be new to many. In that case look around: if you’re the only one at the dinner table who knows the trick, guess who the best possible teacher is? It’s you. Worth is relative. If David Blane shows up yield the floor, but otherwise everyone is looking to you. Put simply something is worth teaching if the person learning it thinks it’s worthwhile.

The fear inexperienced writers have is that everything has been said already. Even if this is true, no one has read it all. You may be the first person that offers to teach them a specific skill, or tells a story in a way that they connect with. It’s Ok To Be Obvious since the person reading your work probably does not know everything you or your peers do. Oddly enough, there is always the largest market for people who can teach the basics in any skill, or tell stories that strike at the universal themes of heroes, love and loss. Experts and snobs complain about books that are too basic, but they’re in the minority on this planet. You don’t need to write for everyone, you need to write for your audience and you can’t find your audience until you start writing.

Personally I know I might have something worth saying when an idea resonates with me and stays in my mind. It could be a critique of something I heard, a powerful story, or even an interesting quote. I keep a notebook with me at all times and write these small observations down. The ones that stay in mind end up as drafts and it’s in the process of trying to write a draft that I learn if I really do have something worth sharing or not. I throw away many drafts and have many half written ones that maybe I’ll return to, but maybe I won’t. Creation is messy and accepting the mess is the biggest challenge for many people who want to make things.

I’m interested in writing and speaking about important things that go unsaid. I like to demystify, debunk and critique sloppy thinking and I try to be brave in taking on subjects that many people think are wrong but are afraid to speak up about. Even something as straightforward as How To Write A Good Bio is a radical simplification of the stupid things I constantly see people do. I try not to be a cynic, and even my critical posts like How to Call BS On a Guru are intended to elevate the reader’s thinking and not just tear down someone else’s thoughts. Even when I rant I work hard to offer an alternative.

My advice is to write and speak anyway even if you have doubts. It’s only through writing and speaking that you’ll improve your thinking and invite feedback from other people. That’s the only way to improve your judgement and craft. I’ve been doing this for years and if you like what I do it’s explained more by commitment than talent. The worst that can happen in writing is no one will read what you have to say. So what? Most writers aren’t widely read, including successful ones. But it’s through publishing and calling something finished that you invite the most useful feedback and that’s the only way to learn better judgement about both what’s worth writing about, and how to write about those things well.

9 Responses to “When Is Something Worth Teaching?”

  1. Shantnu Tiwari

    The biggest fear I face is being seen as a fraud. As in, “haha, he doesn’t even know X, but pretends to be an expert on it by writing a book,” for example.

    1. Scott

      I don’t look at it that way. Someone who reads something I wrote and can show me what I got wrong has tremendous value. I wouldn’t have attracted their expertise in showing me what’s wrong if I *didn’t* write the book. I don’t fear getting things wrong as long as I learn from each thing I write (or each criticism I read).

      I can’t learn a thing from someone who tells me what I wrote was perfect. I can learn something from someone who hates what I wrote, or found it deeply flawed. I might not agree with them in the end but I can sure learn something about their perception by listening to them.

    2. Sean Crawford

      I like Scott’s reply.
      Meanwhile, one of my favourite (but no longer posting) essay-bloggers is Steve Yegge. In an essay, “You Should Bog” Stevey, although a computer nerd genius (to me) said you (a normal non-genius) should blog (meaning do essays) because he would like to read it, as he would learn something. Stevey says we all learn different things, at different times, when we are ready.We are each on our own schedule. As Scott would say, some of us haven’t been ready to learn the coin drop.

      I don’t know about “feeling a” but as for “being a” fraud, it seems to me the trick is to think of others and not have a blind spot from one’s ego, or from conflicting unworthy motives. For me the trick is to get centred, Back in August I posted an essay on being centred for those who were ready to get grounded.

      Sure I wondered if I should feel like a silly fellow from southern California, but getting centred took care of that. No embarrassment… unless you count going back to my piece months later and being more objective about my imperfect writing craft.

  2. PJ Petrillo

    Very informative. I appreciate it.

  3. Elz jimenez

    ,.thank you for sharing this to us.,it m0tivates me m0re to pursue my dream,.i realLy want to write buT i d0nt kn0w h0w to start,i trieD so many times buT endEd up n0thing,thr0wing alL my drafts..never finisheD even a chapter.,bt after reading this oNe,,my fashi0n in writing rose again..THANK YOU SO MUCH SCOTT.. :-*

  4. aimee whitcroft

    To my mind, something is worth teaching the moment someone wants to learn it. The corollary to this, of course, is that as you’ll generally find people who’re interested in just about _anything_, then most things are worth teaching :)

    As to whether one is the person to teach? Well, I think the moment anyone has an urge to pass along (valid) information and knowledge to other people, they should foster it. And it’s worth remembering that imposter syndrome is alive and well, and especially amongst those who should least doubt themselves.

    So yeah! Go out there and pass along what you know to others* – you never know whose lives you may touch for the better, and how it may improve yours in turn :)

    [Sidenote: Nerd nite, a global event for which I’m the Wellington (NZ) host, shows how much interest people have in teaching and learning from each other :)]

    * Erm, unless it’s anti-vax and other such woo. In that case, please don’t.

    1. Scott

      It’s always fascinating to me when people think they might want to teach but don’t think they’re experienced enough yet, as if there was universal quotient for how experienced you have to be for what you know to have value. You merely need to know more than the ‘student’ and be the most qualified person around. Plenty of places have a shortage of highly qualified people.

      You could simply be in week 2 of a course, and the people in week 1 would love to chat with you. To them, what you know, is in the pile of things they don’t. Sure, a world expert on the subject might be a better teacher, but they’re rarely around (unless you keep one in your pocket, which I doubt that expert appreciates).


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