Last time we discussed the different categories of learning: training, practice, and tinkering, and how to approach them accordingly. Similarly, if we look at the different stages that one can go through as they evolve in their profession, it can help us map a trajectory and set some professional goals. The 3 major categories when it comes to learning/training are: technician, instructor, coach. But before I go any further, I want it to be very clear that the order of these categories does not imply that you must achieve each one in order to be—or consider yourself to be—successful. They are simply descriptive terms of different levels that you might, or might not, aspire to. Let’s look at each one individually.
When we set out to learn a new skill (hopefully using the approach we discussed in the previous section), our goal is to get to a point where we can master it. Most people think that mastery means being among the best in the world. It doesn’t. It merely means doing something with consistently good quality. That doesn’t seem like much of a bar to set, but you’d be surprised how few people meet it. Most people are good but inconsistent, or consistently bad. Once you have trained and practiced a skill well enough to perform it consistently well, it means you have mastered it and you have reached the level of technician (for that skill only). As a technician you have all of the technical knowledge and skill necessary to perform well and can speak intelligently about it to other people in the same industry and in most cases, to those outside the industry. Note that a technician can range from being good to being the best in the world. One can choose to stay here for the rest of their careers if they want.
Some technicians feel the need to impart their knowledge onto others and share their skills. However, the biggest mistake some technicians make (and managers for that matter), is thinking that every good technician must become an instructor. This is a similar phenomenon in the corporate world when it comes to frontline workers who are very good at their jobs and automatically get promoted to managers only to discover that they are not very good leaders. In both cases, the transition must be based on, not just mastery of the initial skill, but the mastery of the skill of instructing. That means that the candidate in questions should have already shown some aptitude in teaching others (co-workers, new-hires, at tradeshows, etc.). That also requires taking training courses about different teaching methods and techniques (presentation, public speaking, etc.) no different than how they acquired their other skills. Think of how few “instructors” actually do that. Again, most think that simply having the technical skill is enough to justify them teaching it. That’s why there are so many poor instructors out there. Don’t be one of them.
Once someone has mastered both the technical skills, the skill of teaching, and gets paid to teach, they can consider themselves an instructor. Professionally speaking, if you are not being paid to teach, you’re not an instructor; you’re a technician who teaches (which is perfectly fine as part of your development into an instructor). From a technical standpoint, this role is not much different than being a technician. The instructor is now focused on relaying information to her students, providing examples, feedback, and direction. With time this becomes easier and opens the door to the next role.
After someone has been an instructor for a while, they can become extremely efficient at it. One can find exactly the right words, exercises, and class structure to effectively impart the knowledge and skills to such a degree that they are no longer fixated on the technical aspects of teaching—everything just flows. The instructor is no longer tripping over their own words, trying to think of the best way to demonstrate something, or blindsided by a question she’s never been asked. Everything has been anticipated. At this level, the instructor is in such a “flow” when she instructs that she exudes credibility and presence. No longer being bogged down with the technical aspects of teaching, she is so efficient in her style that she has enough time to pepper in plenty of wisdom in her classes; wisdom that only comes with experience. A coach not only teaches, she inspires.
Unlike becoming a technician or an instructor, becoming a coach is not something that has shortcuts. One can take as many courses as they can afford and practice as often as physically possible in order to become a world-class technician or instructor relatively quickly. Becoming a coach requires that but also the wisdom that comes with experience. And even with a lot of wisdom, if it is not imparted in such a way that it leaves an impression on your students and inspires them to want to be better, then you are not a coach yet.
It bears repeating that these categories are only descriptive, not prescriptive. Just because they are in order and you need to master one before you can move on to the next, doesn’t mean that everyone reading this must follow that progression or aim for one or another. My goal here is to help you segment those roles in your mind so that it can be easier for you to understand them clearly and :
1) determine where you are now, and
2) determine where you want to be in the future.
Having these roles laid out clearly and what each entail, is the first step. The second step is for you to be brutally honest and ask yourself what category you fall into. If I had given you the three categories without defining them, and asked you which one you consider yourself, what would you have said? If the answer would have been different after learning all of this, then that means you had a breakthrough. If you would still consider yourself in the same category, then at least I hope you have a better idea as to whether you want to reach for the next step. If you do, I hope what I shared with you here will take you on a straighter path.