Why Do You Do What You Do?

My first job out of college was as a supplemental mathematics instructor. I traveled around to classes of 4th, 5th, and 6th graders in Indianapolis and used Socratic methodology to introduce them to algebra concepts they’d see again in high school.


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One of my favorite students ever was Adrian, this little dude in the 4th grade who couldn’t sit still, couldn’t answer a question correctly, couldn’t stop himself from interrupting others when they were talking.

Why? Why would I pick this little scoundrel as my favorite student ever?

I’ll get to that in a minute. But first, let me explain a little bit about why I was teaching, and not, you know, doing pretty much anything else.

Why did I do that? Why did I sign up with this little organization that paid me like 60% of what my peers were getting, and I even had to drive my own car to the various classes?

On the surface, I didn’t want to go to graduate school. And I wasn’t ready to become an actuary just yet. [That happened a couple of years later.] And, obviously, I needed to pay bills. Landlords in Indianapolis wouldn’t accept IOUs.

Yeah, but, why? Why did I end up choosing a job where I was teaching? Why does anyone teach?

Previously, I wrote about the poor connotations around the phrase “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” [Check it out.] It sets up a whole host of ideas that I don’t think we really want to have floating around in our society, but are there. So we need to reframe the conversation.

That article ends with a rather pointed phrase that I think explains how we need to re-set our philosophy. Instead of “… Those who can’t, teach,” we need to think like this:

Those who can, do.

Those who wish to scale, teach.

So what does “those who wish to scale” mean?



Well, it means that we want to have an impact greater than just what we can accomplish by doing the work ourselves. It means to be more powerful than a 1-to-1. It means to reach further and deeper into society.

We want to help others. And yeah, “helping others” isn’t unique to the education field. But it’s a fundamental theorem of why people are teaching that they’re literally changing lives by their actions.

Look, there’s a plethora of professionals out there who can sell ketchup Popsicles to Eskimo women in white gloves. There are uncountable doctors skilled enough to perform appendectomies with just a Swiss Army Knife and a bottle of hydrogen peroxide. There are vast swaths of engineers who could design an alarm system with half of what MacGyver would use, and still have the excess mental capacity to chew bubble gum at the same time.

There is virtually no skill that exists today that does not have people at the top of their game in that skill, whether it be health care, engineering, marketing and advertising, tour guiding, sales, research, or extreme sports (to name a few).

And, in parallel with that, in today’s economy, there’s no shortage of people offering their own courses on sales, on health, on design and engineering.

But, why?

Isn’t Enough Information Out There Already?

Perhaps. I mean, if you type in “how to learn Data Science” into Google, you get 3 billion results. It’s kind of a big deal these days.

So what does everyone think they’re doing by creating their own little mastermind group, or their own little private client segment on Facebook? Just jumping on a bandwagon? Trying to ride a trend before it crashes? Looking for suckers?

Again, perhaps. But I think it’s deeper than that.

I think we’re all searching for our own Adrian.

Not A Bad Kid, Really

Adrian was in Ms. B’s class. I walked in the first day and it was a shambles. My first class and I didn’t really know what I was doing. Oh, sure, I’d practiced all summer but that was with the other professionals in my office, not real, live students, and I was shaking in my suit. [Yeah, we still wore suits back then. I looked goood!]

Plus the class was a bit unruly, and we ended up starting with a substitute. Anyone who remembers fourth grade remembers that substitutes just don’t know what’s going on, so the kids ruled that day.

Photo by Wallace Chuck from Pexels


Well there was one little guy, Adrian as you’ve guessed, who just couldn’t concentrate. Couldn’t sit still, couldn’t keep his hands to himself, never answered a question right.

And what frustrated us both was that every day after, it seemed like he was the only one who hadn’t settled down. The others got the hang of the class and the lesson style pretty quickly, but Adrian, he struggled. And as he struggled, so did the rest of the class. He was a disruption and a distraction, which meant that it wasn’t going well for any of them.

He struggled. They struggled. I struggled.

I couldn’t get through the lessons I’d planned. I wasn’t engaging them in the ways I’d expected. They just weren’t “getting it” like they were supposed to.

Something was wrong.

It was couple of months in when I figured, I needed to try something different. I needed to shake things up. So I determined to have a “silent lesson.”

I walked in, said, “Good afternoon. Everything from now on today will be quiet.” And I began showing them a problem on my fingers. I pointed to the board, I mouthed the words instead of saying them out loud, I called on students to show me on their fingers what the answers were, etc.




It worked.

Adrian was the top student that day. He had his hand in the air for every question. And he was getting them right, too! He supported his classmates, he was happy when they got the right answer, he was patient with them and with me. In short, he was the model student.

Afterwards, I asked to speak with him in the hallway. I was so impressed with that guy, I just had to know what was going on.

“Adrian”, I said, “You did really great today. Nice job! What do you think made the difference?”

He said, and I’ll never forget this, “I could finally hear myself think.”

That was it. That was the kicker.

Did you get that?

Adrian had figured out that he needed quiet to learn, and when it was quiet, he could hear himself think. He didn’t have to distract others, because he, too, could do what he was supposed to.

I could finally hear myself think.

— Adrian, 4th Grade

Indianapolis Public Schools, Mrs. B’s Class, 1999

That was a turning point for him. He didn’t do a 180 overnight (this is no Stand and Deliver or Dead Poets Society moment), but he did improve. He acknowledged that we couldn’t do a silent lesson every time, but he would try to be more aware of himself and his classmates in the future.

He was, and we did revisit the silent lessons every few weeks, and the whole class gradually got better.

It was awesome.

Photo by Jaime Lopes on Unsplash


And you know what?

It wasn’t because of me.

I know, it sounds a little bit strange to say it, in a blog post advocating teaching and improving your skills.

But, it was because of Adrian.

He knew the stuff.

He just had a hard time expressing it.

Once we gave him a way to express what he knew, he wasn’t being held back any longer. Since he could actually express what he thought, his frustration didn’t come out in other ways – like disobedience, boredom, and distracting his classmates.

And I think that, that Aha! moment, those few times every so often that an educator discovers, is what we’re looking for when we continue to teach.

We’re looking for those opportunities when we can bring people out of their shells, and expose them to a whole new set of opportunities they didn’t know existed.

We’re looking for breakthroughs.

So, Why Do We Teach?

It’s Not About The Money

We teach because we know that there are people out there who could benefit from what we know. We teach because we feel almost a moral obligation to share that knowledge with them. We teach because we know their lives will be better off if they have the skills that we have, and we want that better life for them.

We teach because we enjoy seeing those Eureka! looks on their faces.

We teach because we want to have an impact.

We teach because we want these students to go off, after we’re done, and leave a space in our classrooms to do it again. There will always be another group in the wings, waiting, because for as many as we teach, there are always more who are ready to start their own learning journey.

Well, It Is About The Money, At Least A Little Bit

And we teach because we know that our students will be happy to pay us to make that improvement in their lives.

It’s not quite the same between elementary and professional education. I get that the public has a very vested interest in educating every student, and for that I am happy to pay my taxes every month.

Heck, I’d be down for doubling school taxes, if it meant that teachers got paid more.

But in this post, I’m really talking about those educators popping up these days on Udemy, or Trainual, or LinkedIn Learning who are offering new services to adults making their own decisions.

A quick spreadsheet calculation tells me that for a professional currently making $75,000 a year, with 3% salary increases, they’ll earn around $900 k over the next decade. Discounting for inflation, that’s around $800k. There’s our benchmark.

If that same professional increases some skills (let’s say they add a technical certification, or they improve their communication skills), they might bump that 3% up to 4%. Now, their earnings in 10 years goes to $935 k. Again after discounting, you’re looking at around $844k. A $44,000 difference.

What would you pay to get something worth $44,000? Would you invest $10 in a book? $199 in a seminar? $1,000 on some coaching? You’re damn right you would.

And remember, that’s only over 10 years. How much more impact can that be over 20, 30, or 40 years?

How much more would your career be worth if you got 1% better every month, not just every year?

Whoa. Talk about compounding your returns. Maybe you’d have an extra $200,000 in your retirement account, allowing you to retire a couple of years sooner. What might that extra year in the future be worth to you today? Is it $10,000? $25,000? $50,000?

And in the same vein, if you’re an business owner or a manager, this is why you invest in your employees. So that they can pay off that investment in the future. Because they’re doing more, with less friction, angst, or confusion. Because they’re better.

Because they enjoy their job more and are willing to go the extra mile during crunch times.

Because they trust you more.

Because they believe that you are invested in them.

What might that be worth? If you have 200 employees, you’re looking at $15,000,000 in salaries.  What if you spent $10,000 to get each and every one of them just 1% improvement in efficiency right away because they’re better communicators? That’s worth $150,000 every year from now to eternity.

That’s an ROI you can’t measure.

Anyway – I’m on a soapbox a little bit, so I’ll get off. In case you can’t tell, I’m passionate about helping more people to communicate better, whether that’s by prospecting the ideas out of their head (you talk, I write, like drilling for oil and refining it later) or by coaching and training you to do that better yourselves.

I teach written and verbal communication skills. Not because I’m going to get rich off of it (see “It’s Not About The Money”, above), but because I know it’s better for the audience when they know how to do it for themselves, when they put these principles into action.

If I can teach 20, or 50, or 100 others how to write a good sentence and story, I’ll have a much greater impact than just writing blog posts and case studies for other professionals. There’s only so many hours in the day.

When I write a blog post, I write one blog post. [Do note, I’m available to write blog posts for you. I love doing that.]

But when I teach others twenty others how to write blog posts, it’s like I”m writing 20 blog posts, not just one.

When I teaching, I can do something once and have a 20x, 50x, even 100x impact.

I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of that.

It turns out, I’m still looking for more like Adrian.

I’m still searching for that next insight moment that makes me go, “Yesss! That’s it! You got it!

Because as many people as learn this stuff, and go on to greater things without me, there are always going to be more behind them. Waiting. Hoping. Ready to better their life because they have more technical skills, more soft skills, more opportunities.

Is it you? What’s holding you back? Is it your communication skills? What could you accomplish if we get that out of your way? Where could you go if you could talk to anyone? What might you achieve if everyone understood you?

Which of your dreams would come true if there was nothing in the way?

I bet they’re spectacular.

Stephan is the author of the Handbook of Content Marketing and It’s Not About The Data, both designed to help you tell your story better. For more information about content creation done for you or workshops to train your team, click here to send a message.

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