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Why this cliche is dead wrong

Posted in the following categories: Life Lessons, Motivation

I’ve been traveling more than usual lately, speaking to corporate audiences in the lead-up to the launch of my new book, Think Like a Rocket Scientist.

After most keynotes, someone from the audience approaches me with the same question:

What was it like to write a book?

I would often struggle to find an answer. After all, how do you condense 2 years of effort into a 30-second soundbite? But last week, after a talk in Boston, I settled on a good analogy that captures my experience.

For me, writing a book was a lot like that scene in The Empire Strikes Back where Luke Skywalker walks into a cave on Dagobah. From a shadowy corner of the cave, Darth Vader emerges. Luke pulls out his lightsaber and a duel ensues. Luke ends up defeating Darth Vader, whose helmet falls off—only to reveal Luke’s own face hiding underneath the mask.

In many ways, writing the book was like entering that cave to wrestle Darth Vader, only to find myself wrestling my own demons—the issues that I’ve struggled with over the years.

In writing about failures in space exploration, I became better at coping with failure myself.

In writing about the fear of uncertainty, I became better at dancing with uncertainty.

In writing about moonshot thinking, I became better at pursuing bigger dreams and abandoning the safety of smaller ones.

Which brings me to the cliche that’s in the title of this blog post.

Those who can’t do, teach.

I couldn’t disagree more.

The best learning happens through teaching. It’s through teaching that you become better at doing.

By teaching, I don’t just mean standing behind a podium in a classroom with a blackboard behind you.

Teaching is writing a book or a blog post. Teaching is sharing what you learned from an article with a colleague. Teaching is relaying your experience to a mentee. Teaching is putting your knowledge into a product or service.

People who don’t teach—who don’t share what they learned—often can’t do.

There’s another name for acquiring knowledge without doing anything with it.

It’s called entertainment.

You can become an “infovore,” go on learning binges, and take every self-help course you can find. But unless you share what you learned with others, you won’t be able to internalize it. As Derek Sivers says, “if information were enough, we’d all be billionaires with six packs.”

The moment you make a commitment to share what you learned about the world, the world comes alive. The very act of distilling information down to its essence and teaching it to someone else is the best way to learn it yourself.

Teaching will also reveal the flaws in your own thinking and the hidden demons that have been holding you back.

So pick up that lightsaber and walk into that cave.

What will you find?

As Yoda says, Something lost. A part of yourself, perhaps. That which you seek, inside, you will find.

You’ll emerge from the cave with a better understanding, not only of the world, but of yourself.

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