Coaching without doing

Yesterday I was thinking about who has given me the most knowledge over the years.

People who have taught me a lot include:

  • My bosses (who tend to do the same type of work that I do rather than being dedicated managers)
  • My coworkers (who aren’t there to specifically teach me, but they learn and share knowledge as they go)
  • Random people on Stack Overflow and in blog posts found via Google

And that leaves the people who haven’t taught me as much:

  • Dedicated managers who don’t get their hands dirty
  • Coaches and trainers who coach and train full time
  • Professional authors, speakers, podcasters, bloggers, etc.

I’ve learned the most from the doers rather than the trainers. That’s the common theme, but I’m not totally sure why that is.

There are 2 obvious theories:

  • Theory 1: Plain old cognitive bias on my part, in that I’m more likely to listen to the doers since I subconsciously believe they’re more likely to know what they’re talking about.
  • Theory 2: The doers really do know what they’re talking about more than the trainers, so knowledge from doers tends to be more useful.

Maybe it’s a combination of those, or maybe it’s something else entirely.

Andy Matuschak wrote a little essay called “People who write extensively about note-writing rarely have a serious context of use” which fits nicely here. He says there are 2 reasons for this phenomenon:

There are two related problems here: effective system design requires insights drawn from serious contexts of use, and powerful enabling environments usually arise as a byproduct of projects pursuing their own intrinsically meaningful purposes.

Andy Matuschak

Sounds like Andy thinks my Theory 2 is correct. You have to do the thing to really understand how to be effective at it, because the effectiveness arises naturally out of the doing. If you’re not doing it, then you won’t really understand it, and teaching something that you don’t really understand is little more than recitation. And “I used to do the thing before I became a trainer” isn’t enough, because it doesn’t take long for knowledge to become outdated.

Brene Brown says it more simply:

If you are not in the arena getting your ass kicked on occasion, I’m not interested in or open to your feedback.

“Dare To Lead” by Brene Brown

She’s referencing this famous Teddy Roosevelt quote:

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming

Teddy Roosevelt, Citizenship in a Republic

(Seems a little dramatic here, since a face “marred by dust and sweat and blood” means sitting at a desk staring at a computer, but hush and go with it.)

So if Theory 2 is correct, and that we can learn less from dedicated managers and trainers than from doers, what is the value of them? I’m thinking people like:

  • Productivity bloggers and YouTubers, like the people Andy’s talking about (see this relevant XKCD)
  • Agile coaches who haven’t worked inside a real project in years except as a coach
  • Full time managers tasked with helping developers grow despite maybe never having done any development themselves

(Important caveat: some dedicated trainers are also doers because they keep their edge with side projects or consulting gigs, etc. These people are the cream of the crop.)

Maybe their value is in the volume. Maybe it’s a numbers game. Doers have more valuable knowledge, but they’re too busy doing to spread as much of it. Dedicated trainers spend all their time spreading knowledge, so even if their knowledge is 50% less valuable, they can spend 500% more time spreading it.

But if that were the case, then I would have learned more from them than from the doers. So maybe that’s where Theory 1 comes into play, and my cognitive bias has gotten in the way of me getting as much value from dedicated trainers as I could have.

I don’t know, I’m still pondering. What do you think? Tweet at me.

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