The Paradox of Teaching

What if it is impossible for me to teach my clients or my kids anything?

Clients come to financial advisors hoping to make changes to improve their financial lives. Most people want to reach a point when they can stop working and maintain their lifestyle. In the meantime, they need to make current decisions on what to do, how to save & invest, and where to spend. Part of my job is to inform, educate, and advise on a course of action.

Similarly with kids, I want them to learn the necessary knowledge, skills, and discipline to be successful in life. I watch over their academics and after-school activities to be sure they are getting good grades and preparing for the next new thing.

But, what if all that I can be, during those teaching moments, is a knowledge bank for something the clients/children already want to know? Or, at best, be a gardener planting seeds for the future if they are not ready to learn right now?

People do things for their own reasons and not mine.

This concept seems obvious and intuitive. However, I’m constantly grappling with it as I keep finding myself engaging in activities to change what others do.

In a way, we can think of “teaching” as an activity that involves changing “students” from someone who “doesn’t know” a topic to someone who “does know” that topic. This isn’t just about an elementary teacher teaching school children, but anytime we want anyone to know anything.

  • When I presented investment concepts to clients and wanted them to understand the rationale for my recommended investment portfolio.
  • When a friend didn’t like something I did and I wanted to explain what happened. 
  • When I’m yelling at the kids to clean up after themselves and trying to get them to see why that’s important.

In all these situations, my default assumption is that my audience, at that moment, is interested in what I have to say. And, I’m making the assumption that they will listen and hear what I’m saying because I’m important/a good communicator/interesting – regardless of whether they are tired, stressed or in a rush.

It’s taken me a long time and a lot of hurt feelings to realize that people are incapable of really hearing me when they are not ready. My client cannot absorb my brilliant presentation of the stock market when he’s thinking about a challenging project at work. My housemate cannot hear my explanation for why there is leftover food on the table when she’s mad at me. My kids cannot understand the beauty of a clean house when they really just want to play with their friends online.

When a student is ready, the right teacher will come along.

In my life, I’ve had many experiences when the above is true. When I was ready to learn and practice reflective listening, I found that one of the best Motivational Interviewing trainers happens to be holding a workshop in my area. When I was struggling with direction in my life, a coach appeared to help me uncover my values and arrive at a decision to become a financial life planner. When I had challenges with my relationships, I found that many people in my circle of friends had gone through something similar and can offer insights from their experiences.

When I really think about it, I realized that the right teachers were always there. “Teachers” aren’t just professionals instructing students in class; they are people around me and life situations that have been trying to tell me what I needed to know. The problem is, I wasn’t always ready to hear. I was waiting for someone to identify themselves as a teacher, not seeing that teachings can come in many forms. Therefore, I ignored a lot of lessons because I couldn’t recognize them.

There is benefit to that ignorance; I wouldn’t get anything done if I am constantly stimulated to learn the next thing before I get done with what I need to do today. However, this blindspot does mean that I need to approach any new learning with a healthy dose of self-compassion because any new learning is likely to come with the realization of prior mistakes I had made out of ignorance.

In fact, I believe that the speed with which we can learn is dependent on how much self-acceptance and compassion we have. This means that I trust that I did the best I could, given my circumstances. It also means that I have faith that I am doing the best I can now, even if I make mistakes. Through this lens, I am able to have more empathy with people around me and not take their actions personally. I see that, when people don’t take in what I say, it’s likely that their behaviors are not about me at all. While it may be a blow to my ego, most people are simply too preoccupied with themselves to figure out what I’m trying to convey.

All of us are just having our own experiences in life.

So, what can I do if I truly want to help others? The key is acceptance. To accept that people are where they are because that is where they needed to be, at that moment. People will not learn or change until they have their own reasons to do so and they need to arrive at those reasons for themselves. Until then, all I can do is to have faith – that people want to do the right things if they can, that strength and resourcefulness is within everyone, and that, when ready, clients and my kids will be able to take in what I have to say.

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