Becoming Teachable

“One of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received was being told I am teachable.” ~ BJ Burns

The most talented guitarist will stagnate and fall behind the much less talented player who is teachable and treats playing as skill to be honed. The same goes for software development. Even the most talented senior developer will not be as good as an average junior developer who is teachable and hungry to learn more. The true greats, like Slash or Hendrix, are a combination of talent and teachability that leads to growth in skill.

Teachability is an aspect of humility. It is the ability to accurately assess and recognize your skills and talents knowing that there is more to learn, even if you are at the top of your field. Senior developers who are teachable take on the attitude of a junior when learning a new skill. Being teachable means that when someone comes along with new knowledge, even someone with less overall knowledge than you, that you take on the role of a student to learn the new thing.

Teachability is not about how you learn or your ability to learn but an attitude toward learning. A teachable person is a lifelong student who has a desire to learn and apply what they’ve learned. It is an ability to unlearn what does not work and relearn a new way of doing something. Being teachable will rapidly advance your career as you will show your peers and managers that you are willing to set aside your ego for the betterment of yourself and your team. Even as a seasoned developer being teachable will help you to keep up with the changes in technology and engender you to the newer developers as you lead by example allowing them to teach you things about the newer tech.

Teachability is a skill as much as it is a personality trait. It is one of the easier things about our personalities that we can change. It takes a little bit of work and some self-reflection to be able to improve teachability but it is possible. On the same note, it’s an easy skill to loose if you are not careful about maintaining it. Use this information to help you understand your own level of teachability and improve it so that you are considered teachable by your peers, mentors, and managers. Not only will it improve your career but it will lead to a happier life as you continue to learn and grow.

Episode Breakdown

Characteristics of an Unteachable Person

An unteachable person doesn’t want to grow or learn because they don’t think they need any improvement. Sometimes this is from arrogance but a lot of the time it comes from knowing a lot and not realizing there is more to learn.

Ignorance

An unteachable person won’t expose themselves to new thoughts or experiences that will challenge what they “know” to be the truth or the “best and only” way to do something. They think they already know all there is to know about a topic or that they know enough and do not need or have time to learn more. The unteachable person doesn’t take notes or ask questions in training sessions (unless it is to profess their own knowledge) and are basically unengaged in learning environments.

Pride

Beyond just being shy or not wanting to bother a more experienced developer, the unteachable person won’t seek guidance even when they are stuck or need help on something like legacy code where the author is still employed there. They refuse to ask any questions that might make them look uninformed or inexperienced, which in turn makes them look even more inexperienced. There are two types of unteachable coders, the one has never heard of StackOverflow whereas with the other all of their code is copy/pasted from there.

Arrogance

An unteachable person refuses to be wrong or even admit the possibility they might not be right, they attempt to justify their thoughts or actions to the point of giving obvious excuses. The unteachable will refuse to accept any form of criticism and many times will become defensiveness when you try to correct them. They must win (or at least to not lose) every argument to the point of refusing to give up or walk away until they have the “last word.”

Characteristics of a Teachable Person

A teachable person desires to learn and grow even when they are an expert on a subject. They are humble about their knowledge and don’t let it get in the way of their ability to learn more.

Values Learning

The teachable person’s greatest enemy is the knowledge they have already gained. Thinking they already know something means that a person doesn’t have anything more to learn. For the teachable person learning is more that just an accumulation of knowledge, so no matter how much knowledge they have there is more to learn. The purpose of learning is to be able to act on what was learned, not for the pure knowledge that comes from learning. If a person doesn’t act on what they have learned, then they have not truly learned anything.

High Curiosity Quotient

A teachable person has an almost unrelenting drive to learn new information and gain new knowledge, they are life-long students. They constantly seek out new worlds and new opportunities, going where no person has gone before. Star Trek jokes aside, the teachable person is highly curious, always looking for new things to learn. The teachable person energetically seeks facts, while Wikipedia rabbit trails can cost them time they are always asking questions and looking up the answers.

Humility

The teachable person sees everyone as a teacher or mentor and can learn from them no matter their current situation in life. Humility creates the opportunity for learning; it occurs when a person accepts criticism from others even peers and those junior. The teachable person takes responsibility for their mistakes whether they are pointed out by others or noticed on their own. Failure is never easy, yet a teachable person admits failure and sees it as a learning experience with knowledge to be gained so they do not fail in the same way again.

Mentors

The most successful and most teachable people have built relationships with those who have higher levels of knowledge and expertise and are willing to share that with them. To the teachable person, the value of personal experience and a relationship with someone who has gained that experience through years in the field far outweighs the vast plethora of cold facts that can be found with the right Google search. Teachable people also mentor others, many have gained great knowledge through their insatiable curious learning and great wisdom through the application of this learning. They are not only willing but desire to share their knowledge and wisdom with other teachable people who seek their mentorship.

Listening Skills

A person is not listening nor learning when they are speaking, even people who do talk a lot can be good listeners if they use the time when they are not talking wisely. A teachable person listens attentively to others and only asks questions for clarification and understanding. They pay attention in training seminars taking detailed notes on the topic and ask clarifying questions or restate the point made in their own words to confirm understanding.

Becoming Teachable

In order to become teachable you have to accept that you do not know everything or even most things. To maintain that teachability you must keep the attitude and understanding that there is always more to learn.

Develop Active Listening Skills

“It takes two to speak the truth – one to speak and one to hear.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

Active listening begins with preparation; remove distractions, focus on the person speak and what they are saying, and put any other thoughts out of your mind: focus completely on the speaker and what they are saying. Use silence to your advantage by seeking to understand before being understood, meaning listen first and explain later or not at all if not needed. Watch for non-verbal cues and wait for the person speaking to pause before you ask clarifying questions. When asking questions make sure they are relevant and used to ensure understanding, not to show your own knowledge of the subject. Summarize the main points the person speaking makes by reiterating them back in your own words allowing for the speaker to correct any mistakes you may have in understanding them.

Learn the Learning Process

Learning is a recursive process, the teachable person is not ever done learning they just have a deeper level or a new topic to apply to the learning process. The process starts by acting on what you have learned previously, this could be a new skill or a way to improve a skill you already have. Next evaluate your performance or how you did when acting on the new information that you’ve learned. Specifically look for mistakes that you may have made when acting on what you learned. Look for a better way to do the thing you are doing, use your mistakes to guide your learning. This may be learning how to improve an existing skill or it may involve learning a new skill all together. Finally, call the learning function passing in the new information. The learning process is a cycle and now that you’ve learned from your mistakes on the previous action it’s time to act again. This facilitates the next learning process.

Find Teachable Moments

Learning is not relegated to training sessions and educational seminars. Opportunities to learn are in everyday situations all the time. To truly be teachable view every conversation and every problem you solve as an opportunity to learn something new or gain a new skill. For the teachable learning isn’t a passive skill that you watch for but something active. Seek out and plan for teachable moments. Take charge of your learning by reading books and blogs, attend conferences (virtual these days), and spend time around people who inspire you to grow and stretch your own understanding.

Make Teachable Moments Count

It takes more than just seeking teachable moments, if you are not careful you can miss the whole point of what you are learning by not putting it into action. Many people will attend a fascinating training session or conference talk but never apply what they learned because they “can’t do it at work” and don’t do it on their own. For these people the focus is on the learning event and not on the process of learning. That process starts with action and ends with the learning event because the learning is to facilitate the action.

When in a learning event such as a conference talk take active notes detailing the actions you need to take such as changes to be able to apply what you are learning, where the best place to apply the lessons are, and what do you need to share with your team or management. Immediately after the event (training session or conference talk) make a to-do list based on what you learned and the notes taken. Schedule a followup on your notes so that you take action.

Use Self-Reflection to Ask if You Are Teachable

To maintain the teachability you have to ask yourself regularly, “Am I teachable?” or “Am I still teachable?” In his article on teachability, John Maxwell lists out ten questions that you need to regularly ask yourself in order to maintain teachability. Answering “no” to any one of these questions means that you have areas that need improvement in your ability to be teachable. Answering “no” to several of these does not mean that you are not teachable, just that you have work to do to improve your teachability. It means that you have things to learn and be taught.

Editor’s Notes:

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