Why Being a Teacher is Great for Professional Development

When I graduated from law school, I wanted to start making contributions to my college. I didn’t have any money, but I’d just spent a few years in Silicon Valley learning about startups. So I contacted the school to see if there was any way that I could share my experiences with students. One thing led to another, and I ended up with an offer to teach a business law course. 

Yes, law school classmates, I know it is unbelievable given my class attendance, but I am an adjunct professor.

I was excited to start. I imagined I'd waltz into the room and inspire the class with my words and intellect. But instead, I seriously got my ass kicked. Not by the students, but by the sheer amount of work that goes into teaching. It’s a huge investment. During my courses, I lecture five hours a day for two weeks, spend all afternoon preparing for the next class, and use the night to catch up on my day job. I lose weight, fall behind on work, and end up exhausted. Despite the amount of work and the challenges teaching creates for me, I’ve likely benefitted more from the experience than anyone else.

I’ve learned that teaching is not just a great way to give back, its also a great way for working professionals to grow. Yes, there are the superficial benefits you get, namely the resume line item, but past the obvious (and pointless), there are serious development benefits to be had from moonlighting as a professor. Forget taking night classes: teach a night class instead.

Teaching gives you appreciation of your knowledge

One of my favorite lessons in school had nothing to do with the course’s subject matter. It was the first day of class, and Hank Greely, bioethics boss, opened up by saying that, although he would be teaching that particular course, he was not an expert in the material. “But fortunately,” he said, "you don’t have to be an expert to be a teacher."

That phrase has had some unexpected sticking power due to a phenomenon I notice in the evaluation of knowledge. People often accept or reject a person in a binary nature: either you’re the best or you don’t count. It’s the Ricky Bobby approach and its common among high-achievers who are accustomed to rubbing elbows with pros.

It’s a lazy heuristic, and it unfortunately creates an unnecessary scarcity in teachers and students. Many could-be teachers are insecure sharing their profound knowledge with others for the simple reason that they are not the best or even an expert. Unaware of the tremendous value of their experience, some are afraid of being outed as imposters. When you know how the sausage is made, no sausage seems appealing.

While that sounds silly, the flip-side is even more asinine. Many could-be students are so caught up in only learning from the best that they pass on learning from non-experts who nonetheless have much to offer. A friend once said that he refused to read anything by Tim Ferriss because Ferriss was “simply" an aggregator of knowledge and not the expert who was generating the knowledge. But Ferriss is a New York Tomes Bestselling author.

I notice a similar skepticism in my students when I start each course. I’m not in a tweed jacket or a suit, so don’t look like I could teach them anything about business or law. I would never claim to be an expert in venture capital or corporate law or securities regulation. I do, however, have six years in Silicon Valley learning about and working with startups. By sharing my experience with my students, I gained a special appreciation for just how much I actually know; I found it’s much better to share that experience with others than to lock it up with my insecurities.

Teaching tests you

One of my high school friends was on the football team and he was a easily one of the strongest guys in the school. A few months after football season ended, he volunteered to teach me the basics of weightlifting. We went to the gym, and some of his football buddies goaded him into their squat rack. He didn’t hesitate, “Come on guys, you know I lift more than that.” But when he went down for the first repetition, he failed and crashed to the floor. Several months had gone by since his last lift, and he had no idea how much weaker he’d gotten.

It’s easy to say you’re good at something until the time comes to actually show it. Unfortunately, many of us never have a chance test our knowledge until we need to draw on it, and by that time, any unnoticed gaps or flaws become expensive.

The value of being a professional derives largely from expertise, but once you’ve graduated from school or passed the bar (or failed the bar, for some of us), you’re not subjected to scheduled tests of your knowledge. It’s easy to develop gaps as familiarity with concepts fades, and its even easier to overlook gaps that you didn’t quite know were there. 

Becoming a teacher allows you to accept that you have valuable knowledge to share with students, but it also makes you aware of topics that you're overconfident about. When you’e forced to discuss topics for hours in more-than-cursory fashion, you may realize that your knowledge is just that; cursory. Importantly, you can find these gaps in the relatively safe space of a classroom where the only cost of not knowing is that you have to do a bunch of research before the next class.

While I was happy to learn that I had loads to teach, I became aware of the holes that affected not only my teaching, but also my professional work. I ultimately read the corporate law textbook that I only skimmed as a student. I even read A History of American Law, a book written by a professor who teaches Stanford, but with whom I never took a course because I didn’t appreciate that an understanding of history informs an understanding of law. Teaching illuminated the gaps, and I’ve been able to reinforce my professional knowledge-set as a result. I’m not an expert in many of the things I teach, but teaching has helped me come closer to expertise.

You can draw an interesting self-evaluation activity from this, especially if you’ve labeled yourself as an expert anywhere on LinkedIn. If you can’t talk about a subject for hours without any preparation, you’re not an expert, and you shouldn’t say you are. As one John Irving character puts it, “Shit or get off the pot.” Don’t say what you are, be what you are.

Teaching gets you out of the echo chamber

Most people that graduated in my law school class moved to one of four cities: San Francisco, LA, New York, or Washington DC. Those cities are great places to start careers, and it’s generally a good idea to go where the work is. In a course at Stanford Law School, Peter Thiel gave students this very specific advice, "If you want a career in tech, move to Silicon Valley. If you want a career in finance, move to NYC. If you want a career in entertainment, move to LA. If you want a career in government, move to DC."

The problem is that most do not live in one of those four cities. Most live in cities like El Paso and Baltimore, or in even smaller cities like St. Louis and Tulsa. But if you live in a big city, you get sucked into big city problems. Not that big city problems aren’t important problems, but they’re not the same problems most people in this country are struggling with. While people in San Francisco and New York are struggling with housing shortages, people in El Paso and the rest of the country are dealing with flat wages. Getting out of the big cities and exposing yourself to the problems of others is valuable in a few ways.

If you want to be an adept problem solver, you need to be familiar with more than the problems of the select few around you, but I’ve seen many people or companies create solutions to “1% problems” that won’t scale into markets outside of whichever big city they reside in, or that don’t take into account how the solution would be implemented around the rest of the country. Having an understanding of small city problems and solutions gives you insights that allow you to better solve broader problems.

Spending time in the normal places of the country also helps you refresh your perspective. I’ve realized that if I spend too much time in Silicon Valley or New York I get sucked into those 1% problems. Like rent prices, or the problems of having a competitive career in competitive markets. When you’ve adopted someone else’s problems, you’ve adopted their values, and who you’ve adopted their values, you’ve abandoned your own.

Spending a few weeks in El Paso is grounding. It grants perspective to my own petty complaints about having to spend too much time on planes. Get out of the echo chamber of luxury problems common to that big, competitive city you live in, and you’ll probably remember why it is you’re okay with paying so much rent in the first place.

An additional perk accrues if you happen to teach in your hometown. As a local, you have a better handle than outsiders do on how to solve homegrown problems. You know the community concerns, the demographics, the culture, and everything else that makes a city unique. A city’s big problems are often intractable, but intractable problems are the problems that smart, young professionals, with their hard-earned degrees, are best suited to solve. Spending time in your hometown could lead to serendipitous discoveries of opportunities that few other people would be qualified to solve.

Teaching broadens your impact

If you’ve got valuable knowledge or views, there are various ways to disseminate them. I have tons of friends who want to get their views on the world out, but almost none of them are teachers, which is funny because the most obvious way to spread an idea is to teach it to someone.

There are, or course, innumerable ways to measure your impact, but one simple set of metrics are breadth and depth. Breadth is how many people you affect, and depth is how much of an impact you have on those people. Generally, the more broad your impact, the less deep it is. You can publish a book where millions have access to your work, but it probably won't fundamentally alter their lives. The more deep your impact, the less broad is. You have a deep impact raising a child into adulthood, but you can only raise a handful of children.

Teaching is a form of impact that sits somewhere towards the middle of the breadth and depth axes, and serves as a nice compliment to the other forms of impact people normally have in life. You are allowed to impart your views of the world on several individuals at a time, and while your students won’t walk out of the classroom with every one of your principles embedded into the core of their persons, you are given several hours of in-person interaction to make sure your views are properly conveyed. 

Of course, there are exceptions to the general trend, and some people impact the world in ways that are both broad and deep. Henry Ford created a product that fundamentally changed society. Jesus’s teachings started a new religion. But most of us will not be Henry Ford or Jesus.