The Orangutan Effect – Teach to Learn
When one teaches, two learn.”– Robert Heinlein
If you want to truly understand something, teach it. Ironically, learning almost always happens in reverse. First, we teach because of how much we know. Then, when we enter the classroom we find out how much there is to still know. All it takes is a question from a curious student to expose what we don’t know at all, or what we know but don’t really understand.
Teaching is an unintentional act of vulnerability. The gaps in our understanding get put on public display. Throughout history, philosophers, researchers, and teachers have embraced this. Aristotle himself declared, “Teaching is the highest form of understanding.” Identifying knowledge gaps is an invaluable gift. It enables the journey to mastery.
So why not pursue teaching with purpose?
President Truman popularized the idea that “not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.” I think he’s mostly right. Gary Keller defines leadership like this: “Leadership is teaching people how to think the way they need to think so they can do what they need to do when they need to do it so they can get what they want when they want it.” I love that definition and it rings true in my experience. If you look at the Latin roots of “to educate,” you’ll see it’s derived from ex (out) and ducere (lead). To “lead out.” So maybe we should say, not all teachers are leaders but all leaders are teachers.
One of the best models for teaching I’ve found is the Feynman Technique. Richard Feynman was a Nobel-Prize-winning physicist known for his breakthroughs in quantum physics and for his ability to demystify complex concepts. He was also a devoted teacher. “I would never accept any position in which somebody has invented a happy situation for me,” wrote Feynman. “Where I don’t have to teach. Never.”
Steps one, three, and four don’t need much in the way of explanation. The second step is the key to the process. Why teach a child? Teaching a young person forces us to break concepts to their most basic parts. We must eliminate jargon. We look for analogies and stories to illustrate our points. And, what benefits a child benefits adult learners as well. In the process, the teacher also grows in understanding. In his recent letter to shareholders, Warren Buffett underscored this point with humor, “If you sit down with an orangutan and carefully explain to it one of your cherished ideas, you may leave behind a puzzled primate, but will yourself exit thinking more clearly.” His partner, Charlie Munger, calls this the “Orangutan Effect.”
Whenever Gary Keller and I are struggling with a difficult topic in our writing, he’ll often challenge me to explain it to him like he’s an eleven-year-old. It’s an invaluable reset. We all suffer from the “Curse of Knowledge.” I first read about this in Chip and Dan Heath’s book, Made to Stick. The Curse of Knowledge says that we often assume that the person we’re talking to shares our background knowledge. If you’ve ever offered to do a CMA for a seller and been met with a quizzical look, you’ve fallen prey to this concept. That’s why we talk about “CMAs” in the office and offer “home valuations” to sellers.
One final thought. Whenever Gary and I are working on a book, we always commit to teaching it before we publish. Often we’ll teach it dozens of times. We’re filling our knowledge gaps. We’re finding out where we suffer from the Curse of Knowledge. We’re gathering stories and insights from our students. And, we’re deepening our understanding of the topics that matter.
If you want to truly master a topic, go teach. And don’t ever stop.
One question to ponder in your thinking time: What’s one class you can commit to teaching monthly that will make you a smarter businessperson?
Make an Impact!