4 Ways to Become More Teachable

4 Ways to Become More Teachable

In a recent post, we explored some tactics for learning new things on your own. In this follow-up post, we're going to dive into another big part of practicing a growth mindset: being more coachable. Finding the right person to coach or mentor you is certainly important, but how you approach their lessons is just as crucial. Here are a few tried and true methods for making yourself a better student of learning and life so that you can make the most of every opportunity to expand your mind and skillset. 

  • Embrace Humility

There’s a reason that people have titles like coach, commander, sensei, professor, or chief whatever officer: because they’re experts who have progressed to the point where they have earned the right to assume such roles. You can only benefit from their bevy of experiences and expertise if you respect them as your instructor and recognize that while they’re years down the path to mastery, you’re just getting going. As Erwin G. Hall said, “An open mind is the beginning of self-discovery and growth. We can’t learn anything new until we can admit that we don’t already know everything.”

In a memorable episode of The Office called “The Initiation,” Dunder Mifflin’s top salesman, Dwight Schrute, takes Ryan to his beet farm to learn some odd yet instructive lessons about how to better connect with customers (cue planting beet seeds in a field and a challenge to wrestle Dwight’s cousin, Mose). At one point, Dwight says to Ryan, “Do you know what your problem is? Do you know why you haven’t made any sales? Because you think you know everything. You have to trust that maybe there are other people that can teach you things.” The results of Ryan’s visit to Schrute Farms are predictably comic, but there’s truth in Dwight’s unorthodox methods and message. It’s only when you humble yourself, seek instruction from someone who you concede knows more than you, and start actively listening to them that you’ll become truly teachable.  

  • View Criticism Through a Better Lens

Every beginner is bound to make a lot of mistakes and missteps at first – even you. As a result, your early efforts might involve whoever is trying to teach you providing a seemingly never-ending series of corrections. After a while, this can start to wear down your initial enthusiasm and bruise your ego, particularly if you’ve stuck with only things that you’re competent at for many years and are now experiencing the unfamiliar sensation of being a true beginner again. But as American writer Elbert Hubbard once said, “To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.”

In other words, if you want to learn, you will have to find a way to subjugate your ego and listen to the advice of someone who knows more than you. You’ll also need to learn how to receive positive reinforcement without letting it go to your head. In his book Wooden: A Lifetime of Observations and Reflections On and Off the Court (written with Steve Jamison), legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden recalled telling his players to never get too high or low when criticized or praised by him or any other teacher:

Fellows, you’re going to receive criticism. Some of it will be deserved and some of it will be undeserved. Either way, deserved or undeserved, you’re going to like it. You’re also going to receive praise on occasion. Some of it will be deserved and some of it will be undeserved. Either way, deserved or undeserved, you’re going to like it. However, your strength as an individual depends on how you respond to both criticism and praise. If you let either one have any special effect on you, it’s going to hurt us.

  • Use Curiosity as Fuel

If your mentor or teacher is very busy or is working with a large group, you might be reluctant to raise your hand and ask questions because you don’t want to bug them (or, going back to tip #1, because you’re worried about seeming incompetent). But the best learners know that they can only make progress when they pick the brains of experts, while excellent teachers have usually developed the patience to give answers that help explain the “why” behind the lessons that they’re trying to impart.

Once you’ve become more comfortable with asking questions, the next step is to make use of what you’re being told. In his book with Charles Fishman, A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life, Hollywood producer Brian Grazer reveals how his desire to learn from experts in a wide range of fields outside Hollywood led him to arrange conversations with everyone from astronauts to Nobel Prize-winning scientists to musicians. He reveals that being is only the starting point of learning, writing that:

For it to be effective, curiosity has to be harnessed to at least two other key traits. First, the ability to pay attention to the answers to your questions – you have to actually absorb whatever it is you’re being curious about. The second trait is the willingness to act. Curiosity was undoubtedly the inspiration for thinking we could fly to the moon, but it didn’t marshal the hundreds of thousands of people, the billions of dollars, and the determination to overcome failures and disasters along the way to making it a reality…at some point, on the way to the moon or the multiplex, the work gets hard, the obstacles become a thicket, the frustration piles up, and then you need determination.

  • Combine Patience and Diligence on the Learning Plateau

Our society is set up around delivering quick fixes, from 30-day diets to drive-thru lines to crash courses in just about everything. We’ve come to believe that the quicker we can achieve a desired outcome, the better, and that anytime a shortcut can be found it should be used. This results-now mindset is in direct opposition to the kind of patient, diligent learning that an expert-level coach or mentor can impart to you if only you’re willing to play the long game. To do so, you’re going to encounter your fair share of frustration.

In his wise book Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment, author and aikido master George Leonard asks you to imagine what would happen when, as a newbie tennis player, your coach asks you to start moving around the court to chase the ball rather than just having it gently aimed your way:  

You feel clumsy, disjointed. You’re dismayed to find that you’re losing some of what you’d gained. Just before you’re ready to call it quits, you stop getting worse. But you’re not getting any better, either. Days and weeks pass with no apparent progress. There you are on that damned plateau.

In response to your exasperation, your tennis coach hits you with a dose of reality: it’s going to take at least six months of you hitting thousands of practice balls before you’ll be prepared to play competitively with friends, and from there, another couple of years for you to develop the strategic awareness to counter your opponent’s tactics effectively.

“The truth begins to sink in,” Leonard writes. “Going for mastery in this sport isn’t going to bring you the quick rewards you had hoped for. There’s a seemingly endless road ahead of you with numerous setbacks along the way and – most important – plenty of time on the plateau, where long hours of diligent practice gain you no apparent progress at all.”

This leaves you only three choices: quitting, practicing twice as long and hard to accelerate the process and squeezing all the fun out of learning tennis, or doing “what your teacher suggests, and stay on the long road to mastery.”

What Leonard has outlined is that we’ve been conditioned to give up or seek shortcuts, rather than taking the advice of our instructor, trusting their plan, and riding out the ups and downs. It’s only when you combine being coachable, diligent, and patient on the plateau that you can move toward real mastery.