teaching v. learning

photo by Jeremy Goldberg

Is it better to do or to teach?

There’s a saying that goes something like, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.”

It’s kinda funny and pithy. It’s usually quoted by myopic university students. It’s also quite misleading. It tries to answer the question of whether it’s better to do something, or to teach someone else how to do it. Overlooking the obvious issues (eg. we don’t want self-taught thoracic surgeons), I think it bears closer examination as many people believe this, even if only subconsciously.

A good teacher usually possesses a different skill set than a good performer. It has nothing to do with being better or worse – it’s just different. The same way that a thoracic surgeon is no better than a neurosurgeon. Either one can be a godsend if that’s what you need. In the same vein, if you are trying to become a lawyer, a great law professor will do you more good than a great lawyer.

I have met people who were amazing practitioners who couldn’t impart their knowledge to others. They had no clue how they manage to fly – they just did it. Ask them about the Bernoulli principle and you would get blank stares. Often they had no interest in imparting their knowledge – making discussions about their own craft cramped and vacuous.

I’ve also met people who were inspiring teachers who were unable to implement their own teaching. They could make you love their subject and inspire you to follow it with all your heart. Yet their own work was less exciting than the work they could teach you to do.

Of course there are the exceptions that are able and interested in doing both of these things. Yet I’m not sure how one would pick the more noble or worthwhile vocation. The world needs both. Whether you’re teaching or doing, as long as you find it inspirational, others probably will, too.

I am largely self-taught, but that’s not because I think it’s more noble to struggle through learning things on your own. Possibly I thought that way when I was younger, but as I gained some knowledge that should have come more quickly, I learned that while even a mediocre teachers can be worse than no teacher at all – a good teacher is indispensable. They can alter your life’s course, give you inspiration that lasts for decades, and impart wisdom that would have taken you decades to acquire. If you were lucky enough to have a teacher like this, I’m sure you remember them.

Part of the reason I’m involved in the entertainment industry is because I took a class from Peter Guber at UCLA, who was Chairman of Sony Pictures at the time (now President of Mandalay Entertainment). He obviously didn’t need the UCLA “paycheck”, and we all know studio heads keep their jobs because of raw desire (theirs) and raw fear (everyone who is supplying the money) – not because of the dubious resume trophy of a film school Professorship. It was obvious he was not only genuinely excited about the industry and wanted to share that, but that he was excited to learn more about an industry he had been at the top of for 20 years. This class was his excuse for still exploring and learning about an industry he had helped shape. While being the consummate doer, you couldn’t help but be influenced by that kind of enthusiasm for learning about the business and art of moviemaking, and how the two might be combined. I’ve often been frustrated that people seem to view the business or art of movies separately in a vacuum, but that’s a post for another day.

Unfortunately, most teachers impart only vocation and detail, but rarely knowledge and inspiration. If you’re lucky enough to encounter even one really great teacher along the way that does more than that, make sure you appreciate it and gain as much as you can from it.