Do you need to know something in order to be able to teach it? It sounds like a silly question, and one that should be answered with a resounding “Yes!”. We all remember the old joke about “those who can, do – those who can’t, teach”, which is at heart a snide comment about those who teach without really being able to do it themselves. We love laughing at academics who make pompous statements about how to lead, or how to excel, or how to become an entrepreneur, when we know that if they knew any of that, they probably wouldn’t be academics.
At the same time, one can be good at analyzing things without necessarily being afflicted by that same thing. We don’t expect psychiatrists to have suffered psychosis, nor do we require that a therapist has suffered divorce and depression before we accept them. Further, great football players do not necessarily become great coaches, and many of the best coaches and trainers have never played professionally. Often, what makes one able to teach is not the fact that one has an exceptional talent that one imparts, but rather that one has a capacity to spot a lack or a weakness, in oneself and others. Teaching a talent is often difficult, as we don’t always have full insight into why we’re good at something. I, for instance, know how to write, but I really don’t know why. I have some ideas, but if I had to tell someone about my method, I’d end up saying things like “Well, I go to this café, and… well, write.” Not very helpful. On the other hand, we often know our own limitations very well. Intimately, even.
So when I was asked what I’ve taught my children, with a particular emphasis on creativity and creative doing, I thought long and hard about whether I’d really taught them anything of the sort. But then it hit me. I’ve actually made them better versions of myself in at least one field.
You see, one of my more defining traits is a specific kind of social anxiety. To state this in clearer language: I’m often uncomfortable in social settings, particularly ones where I have to interact with strangers. This might seem odd, since my life is a constant interaction with strangers. On any given day, I might be tasked with working through a strategy with a board of directors I’ve never met before, or to go on stage in front of thousands of strangers and tell them how to become better at innovating. For people with social anxiety, this could be a nightmare, the thing that triggers panic-attacks and makes life unbearable.
I, however, manage quite well in such settings. In part this is because I’ve trained myself to be great in such settings, and in part this is due to the fact that I can go into a role and play that to perfection. This is how I can seem incredibly self-confident on stage (some would say “insufferable” or “arrogant”) and yet be quite anxious at the same time. But it’s actually not those settings, those calm and structured business settings, that I struggle most with. Instead I battle with something far more mundane.
I fear going into a restaurant without knowing whether there’s a free table. There, I said it. I can freak out about going to a café I don’t know, or not being sure about how to order at a bar. It’s a small thing, but it is very real to me. I often find these small, impersonal social interactions far more troubling than arguing with a CEO in front of hundreds of reporters, as odd as this might seem. This is also at the root of what, if anything, I’ve taught my children.
“–Sean, can you run in there and ask if they have a table for three?” He’s a good kid, a smart kid, and has an easy way about him. He fears nothing. From very early on, I sent him to do little errands, ask people stuff, call restaurants for bookings. He never asked why. Sean comes back and says he’s arranged a table for three people, and if it’s OK it’s towards the back. I smile and say yes. He has no idea he’s eased my social anxiety.
“–Line, go ask that lady if they have this in black.” She’s quick-witted and cute, with a temper and an easy smile. She fears very few things. She likes helping out – although she also has the teenager’s laziness about her. When she goes looking for a job, she doesn’t ask me for advice, except after the fact. She doesn’t know I sometimes find it uncomfortable to talk to shop assistants. Not always, but sometimes. She chats happily with this one, and brings me back a black polo.
Sean needs a job for the summer, and wants me to help him get one. I refuse. Well, not necessarily refuse, but rather suggest a deal. He’ll apply for a job as a salesman. Not even a nice sales-job, but one of the worst there is. He’ll sell door-to-door, with a range of products that are, frankly, ridiculously overpriced. If he can do this for two months, I’ll guarantee his salary and he can keep his commissions too. So, if he sells well, he’ll make a ton, and even if he fails completely, I’ve guaranteed his income.
The job is awful, but he does well. He drives around in the country-side, talking to farmers and workers in the field. He has coffee with old couples, and chats with firemen and whomever he can find in the tiny villages he goes to. He knocks on doors and turns up at people’s front yards. He does well, considering.
In part, I’ve always tried to push my children into the kinds of social settings I fear. They have become far more social than I am, unafraid of engaging, ready to chitchat with complete strangers at the drop of a hat. Through this they have become popular in their social circles, got opportunities they’ve otherwise never gotten (they’ve both hung out with royalty and CEO’s, and Sean has even picked up work as a male model), and become better salesmen and leaders. They will go on to make great things, and I fully believe they can eclipse me in many, many ways in their coming careers.
I write this not just to praise my children, although I greatly enjoy doing so. I write this to acknowledge that what we can teach our children goes far beyond our strengths, what we know we’re good at. For me, the greatest gift we can give our children is to not let our own weaknesses live on in them, to try to make them better human beings than we ourselves are. I look at myself and see anxiety and other foibles, so I try to think of ways to not burden my children with this. At times, looking at my brave and social children, I think I’ve succeeded pretty damn well.