Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard this old adage, generally used disparagingly…

Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.

98% chance your hand, like mine, is in the air right now.

Everybody’s heard this phrase.

Most people have said it. Keep those hands up if that has ever come out of your mouth. While not as high as before, I’m pegging the over-under on this one at about 75%, self included as well.

Generally, this saying is issued to somehow insult teachers, as if they “couldn’t handle the real world” of mathematics, or writing history books, or of producing documentaries. You’re not good enough, is the implied meaning. You’re not dedicated enough. You can’t handle the pressure. You’d be out making a lot more money in the “real world” if you could, but you can’t, so that’s why you’re settling for teaching.

And while some of those may be true, on an individual basis, it’s a rather gross stereotype, one I now see as encompassing a terrible mindset about those who teach.

Problems Inherent

One major problem is that it’s rather limiting to a professional to say that he or she is required to perform within the world outside academia, as if that is the first choice and the standard for performance within this world. We hear so often, “Be what you want to be,” but then receive contradictory messages denigrating those who may just really want to remain immersed in the subject itself, rather than applying the principles in an increasingly competitive, cutthroat economy. If a teacher, who is happy teaching, sees all of her peers miserable because they’ve succumbed to the rat race, who has made the wiser choice? Who has followed her dream more faithfully? Who should we really admire and look up to?

Second, what does this phrase tell students about those who are instructing them? Oh, these people can’t really do economics, so they’re here in your high school class to teach you about it. Yeah, we can’t afford real professionals, so you get the amateur hour. Is that instilling confidence within our youths, or, really, anyone on the outside, to think of our educators as incapable of performing at the level required of them? Or causing them to doubt their education, and, consequently, their own opportunities for the future?

So Nobody’s Teaching Anymore?

Far from it. Many still choose to teach what they know. Not just in the formal school system, either. We’re now seeing a mass democratization of education, with online courses on hundreds of platforms, where one can learn everything from traditional college-level biology or philosophy delivered by big-name institutions (https://www.edx.org/) to immensely practical, individually-led on-demand learning about flowcharts or e-commerce store inventory management (https://www.udemy.com/).

The number of these individual courses grows every day. And they’re not just on dedicated sites – new tools now mean just about anyone can teach a course on, well, virtually anything they know about. I just logged on to Facebook (ugh, I know), and the 3rd post was literally titled “Finally, a Predictable Way To Get Writing Clients”. This is, clearly, another writer selling me his system (free at first, then the upsell once I’m hooked) for getting clients.

I can buy virtually anything these days, because people are selling training courses for nearly everything under the sun. The question is, Why? Why, if we have denigrated teaching so much and for so long, would so many be putting time and money towards presenting themselves as teachers? Why would they be leaving the doing of whatever it is (getting clients, trading energy derivatives, building business analytic systems, etc.) they have clearly achieved some level of success, in order to shift over to the lowly position of teacher?

Because It’s The Economy, Stupid

Now, just to be clear, I’m not calling you stupid. (I’m referencing a phrase from an old Bill Clinton candidate message.) I am, however, pointing out that people selling those courses are, in fact, selling something.

And those who are working at teaching economics or poetry or computer science at our high schools and colleges are actually selling that education, as well. They may be selling in bulk, and the payor (school system) may be different from the client (high school students), but the idea is the same.

Instead of doing the work once, and getting paid for it once, by an employer (or client), these innovative entrepreneurs are doing a different kind of work once, and selling that work product multiple times, with little to no marginal cost to them.

It’s like how if you custom-design cars, or computers, or clothes, it takes a lot more time and cost to produce them. But if you figure out how to do one thing over and over and over, you spread the design and set-up cost over a vastly larger set of outputs, meaning your costs go down, and your profits go up.

Think about it. A professor of biology does the same amount of work to lecture 20 students as 30, as 40, as 1. Which makes the most sense, from an economic standpoint?

An online educator proclaiming to instill within me a 7-step foolproof method for how to get new writing clients could be using those 7 steps to land new clients left and right. But then she’d be stuck doing that writing work over and over and over again. Much better to, instead, exploit my naivete a little bit, make some passive income selling a portion of her knowledge to me and ten thousand others around the country (around the world, even!), and free up some time in her day for a visit to the State Park or to work on developing the next course. Again, which one makes more economic sense?

Am I Just Being Extra Cynical?

I don’t think so. I believe I’m offering a warning to those out there who imagine they will get something for nothing. That they’ll get the “secret” to instant success and financial freedom, simply by following some guru’s “foolproof” formula for landing bigger, better clients or making money with other people’s money in real estate.

Yes, those people could be off doing the thing and making money there, but they’ve figured out that it’s an easier life selling the idea of making money in whatever industry they have some experience in, and they’re pursuing that endeavor with abandon.

Good on them.

I’m just not likely to participate.

Didn’t You Mention A “Better Phrase”?

Yeah, I guess I did. Remember, the old idea was “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” I think we need to retire that one and, instead, replace it with the following.

Those who can, do. Those who wish to scale, teach.

Keeping this in mind will help everyone who comes across the next “free” seminar on how to get something for nothing. It’s less likely to give you value than to create a profitable revenue stream for the “guru”. You’ve been warned.



Update: Recently I published a follow-on to this article, titled “Searching for Adrian”. Read it at this link.

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