How To Teach A Skill Like A Pro—And Dodge The Curse Of Talent

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Teaching a skill is easy—or is it?

Have you ever tried to teach a skill to someone? A skill that you find easy, only to find out it’s as comprehensible to your trainee as quantum physics to a toddler (or even a grown up!)?

If this is you, you may be possessed by… cue spooky music… the Curse of Talent! 👻

Why would being a whiz at something be a curse?

Let’s find out!

When you’re learning new things, you become aware of and try to remember, each key point and step along the way. As you practice or repeat a new technique, you make mistakes. Every mistake gives you feedback on what doesn’t work. You respond by making the necessary adjustments, and make fewer errors.

Proficiency strengthens neural pathways in the brain

Each time you practise a skill correctly you strengthen the neural pathway for that particular skill and become increasingly proficient. Over time, and with familiarity, what was once perhaps a thoughtful, complex or exhaustive process becomes straightforward and easy—thought-less. You become proficient or fluent. And, depending upon the task, able to perform it more quickly.

So, you’ve usually nailed your skills through relentless practice—so much so, your brain has decided it’s all too mundane to remember the nitty-gritty details of how you got there. The more of an expert you become, the more difficult it is to remember how you learned the skill in the first place.

This is great for performance, but spells trouble when you switch to teaching mode. If you forget the mistakes you made, you might end up teaching what you think you do, rather than what you actually do.

This is the curse of talent.

Driving a vehicle is an example

Driving is a complex skill involving precise visual and motor coordination (pun intended!) Once mastered (i.e. repeated on numerous occasions) it becomes mostly unconscious. At this point, driving is no longer a new skill. It feels comfortable and natural.

As a proficient, experienced driver, you no longer consciously think about when to signal, change gears, speed up, or brake. All you’re doing consciously is focusing on the direction you’re headed—and sometimes even that is automatic! At this level of competency, you’re too busy eating your lunch and listening to the radio. You’ve probably forgotten the numerous elements involved in the process of driving.

Now you think driving is a piece of cake

It’s easy for you because you’re unconsciously skilled at driving. So if someone asks you to give them driving lessons, you might agree, without giving it much thought.

But once you start to teach someone the skill you do easily and unconsciously, the process is no longer readily available to you. The skill of driving is unconscious and automatic. You’ve completely forgotten what it was like to be a beginner.

And now you’re going to teach someone that skill!

At this point, it’s almost inevitable that if you try and teach someone to drive without some conscious and serious thinking, you’ll:

  • Miss out key information that will make a huge difference to the learner’s success.
  • Teach what you think you do, without rational explanation.
  • Unintentionally teach your trainee any bad habits you might have. Not you specifically—because you probably don’t have any—but, you know, people. 😜.
  • Add in unnecessary steps.
  • Miss out critical steps.
  • Use jargon, without explaining what it means.
  • Give them too much information so they become overwhelmed.
  • Forget about all the mistakes you made, and get annoyed when your trainee makes the same ones.

The likely outcome

Rather than successfully passing on your skills, you’re likely to end up annoyed and frustrated. And your trainee will be confused, discouraged and have turned into a nervous wreck. (I’m speaking from first hand experience here—my Dad tried to teach me to drive!)

a man pointing at a woman in a car, both looking annoyed and frustrated

So how do you get past this curse of talent and successfully teach a skill you know well?

Steps to de-cursing your talent to successfully teach a skill

Here are eight key points to remember when you’re teaching someone a skill you can already do well.

1. Goal Setting:

Start with the end in mind. What should your trainee walk away being able to do? Set the stage with this goal, and you’re halfway to successful teaching, because answering this question will provide an overview and direction for both you and your trainee.

2. Analyse exactly what you do, action by action.

Go Sherlock on your skill. Break it down. Every tiny action you take, note it down. This microscopic analysis of your process should be done before you even start the teaching process with a trainee. This might feel like explaining how to breathe, but sometimes, that’s what training feels like!

The best teachers are those most interested in the process, not the outcome ~ Robert John Meehan

3. Essential Components:

Identify the key points or components needed to be successful at this skill. Using driving as an example, these could be starting, stopping, slowing down, changing gears, parking, and swearing at other drivers (just kidding on the last one—maybe).

4. Step-by-Step Guide:

What are the individual steps necessary to achieve each key point? Break down each key point into manageable pieces or steps, no matter how trivial they seem. Remember, you’re teaching driving, not teleporting!

For instance, the individual steps for changing gears might be; increase (or decrease) speed, engage the clutch, change gear.

a group of students sitting on steps

5. What values and beliefs drive you? (pun intended)

Would your values and beliefs be useful for your trainee to adopt? For example, one driver might believe it’s important to be courteous to other drivers. Another driver might believe that every other driver on the road is an absolute idiot who got their licence in a lucky bag! Your beliefs and values dictate your behaviour both in how you carry out the skill, as well as in how you teach it.

Your trainee will, therefore, pick up your beliefs and values by what you do or how you behave. So it’s worthwhile identifying what your values and beliefs are, and whether they’re the kind that will help a trainee be successful. They’ll pick up more from your attitude than your aptitude.

6. Language Matters:

Keep it simple and use language that anyone can understand. When you’re learning something new, there’s a lot to take in. It’s easy to become overwhelmed with information. Make things a little easier for your trainee by using plain language wherever possible, or explaining what you mean immediately if you need to use a jargon word.

7. Be compassionate:

Remember your first flailing attempts? Go back to your beginners mindset if you can. Channel that memory. Remembering your struggles will help you feel more compassionate towards your trainee. It’s not just about making your trainee feel better; it’s about keeping them motivated and less terrified of the journey. Make it OK for them to make mistakes. This is a way for them to gain feedback. They’ll relax and assimilate the information more quickly.

8. Cheer Them On:

Celebrate the tiny victories. Managed to not stall the car at the lights? That’s a win. Small successes pave the way to big achievements. Give positive reinforcement by praising every effort and small success. Small successes build confidence and the motivation to keep going.

Be specific with your feedback, so your learner knows exactly what they’re doing—right or wrong. For instance, “Good job on indicating and remembering to check your blind spot before you pulled out.”

Dodge the curse: Be a great coach!

By keeping these eight key points in mind, you dodge the dreaded curse of talent, enabling you to pass on your wisdom without the frustration. And remember, like every good skill, teaching gets better with practice. The more you do it, the more you’ll refine your approach, and the less likely you’ll be to forget that teaching is, indeed, a skill on its own; a skill you’ll be able to apply in complex future contexts.

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Tags: Beliefs and values, Communication skills, Goals, Language, Learning and memory, Thinking and mindset, work and career

2 Comments

  1. Gail Reichert

    Great post Steph. If we only knew how much we knew it would all be easy eh! I used to encourage getting someone who has just learned the skill to teach it, as they are far more conscious of the steps they are taking than the expert.
    Experts also need to be conscious to their own (invisible) thinking processes, and if possible verbalise them while demonstrating to the learner.

    Reply
    • Stephanie

      Yes, exactly Gail! 😀 I think everyone suffers from the curse of talent, because we’re all experts in some area of our lives. Being conscious of those unconscious processes and skills is the key to teaching well. And yes a beginner without any teaching skills may well be better at teaching than an expert who is no longer aware of how they do what they do.

      Reply

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