I often say that there are two types of creative people: those who create things themselves; and those who help others create – as facilitators, directors, producers, managers, coaches or teachers.
Inevitably, the hands-on creators get most of the limelight, but facilitators are the unsung heroes of the creative industries.
The director is the invisible hand behind a successful play or film; The Beatles would not have been The Beatles without George Martin; and many a writer’s blushes have been spared by a deft and discreet editor.
Of course, facilitating doesn’t look as sexy as stardom. And even among the facilitators, teaching looks one of the least sexy options. Yet not only is it a rewarding activity in its own right, it can also be a powerful catalyst for your own creativity.
The relationship between creativity and teaching has been a theme of some recent conversations I’ve had with Jen Louden. Many of you will know Jen as the best-selling author of personal growth books including The Woman’s Comfort Book and The Life Organizer.
I was very pleasantly surprised to see Jen’s name crop up in the comments in the very early days of Lateral Action – it was encouraging to know that such a successful writer was reading my words.
We’ve been talking behind the scenes since then, and Jen recently interviewed me about my experience as a coach and trainer, for her Teach Now program (affiliate link). So I though it would be nice to interview her about teaching and creativity for Lateral Action.
That’s not quite how it turned out though – Jen couldn’t resist asking me more questions in return, so what follows is more of a conversation than an interview…
Mark: Jen, you told me once when someone asks you what you do, you say, “I’m a writer” but you spend as much time teaching. Why?
Jen: Because teaching pushes me like nothing else – it’s the quickest way to become better at writing, parenting, loving, and serving. Teaching is the most creative and the most difficult thing I do.
Teaching is learning, and what better thing for a creative to do! I tend to fall in love with my ideas, hold them close and fondle them, which can be a very quick route to creative blockage – don’t touch my precious! When you share your work with live humans – you see what works, what doesn’t – and you adapt.
When I teach, I connect with my “For the sake of what?” So many of us work alone and it’s easy, at least for me, to start to wonder, “Why the heck am I bothering?” but when I see life changing aha’s happening right in front of me, I know why.
Finally, teaching keeps me honest and humble. It’s easy to get an inflated sense of your own importance, and while living with teens helps that (insert wry cackle), when you teach, you must believe what you’re saying or you end up feeling really icky about yourself.
Wait, there’s one more: it’s how I best serve. The world needs your knowledge, your energy, your mojo. To share what you’ve learned, often through great trial and error, is so precious.
What about you Mark? Why do you teach? What do you get out of it?
Mark: I never intended to be a teacher. Both my parents were schoolteachers, and I was resolved never to go down that route. But I got interested in hypnosis, which led to training as a hypnotherapist… at which point I discovered I loved working with people, and seeing the ‘lightbulb moment’ when they found the solution to their problem. I went on to practise other forms of psychotherapy, then coaching and eventually teaching.
Whether I’m coaching one-to-one or training with a larger group, it’s still the same buzz of seeing people learn and discover they can do more than they thought possible. I also get a lot of ideas from researching, preparing and delivering training sessions – plus conversations and feedback from students.
Jen, you said teaching is the most creative and difficult thing you do. Why difficult?
Jen: Teaching is raw! You’re out there, saying your piece, and what if it flops? Which it does, often! It’s like anything you create: you envision it going one way and then there is the way it actually goes. Only that happens in relationship with other people rather than alone in your studio.
The cool thing is, by being going deeper in into the tangles and boondoggles of teaching, you learn so much about yourself, about your subject, about your own creative truth. Writer and teacher Parker Palmer says, “Teaching holds a mirror to the soul.” If we are willing to look in that mirror, we get such a chance to grow. Don’t look and teaching can eat you up and spit you out.
Mark: We certainly don’t want to be spit out – how can we avoid that? What helped you thrive as a teacher?
Jen: I’m still learning but one big thing that has helped me is talking to other teachers I respect about their inner process and evolution. For Teach Now, the course I created with Michele Lisenbury Christensen, we’ve interviewed 28+ master teachers about their process – including you. It’s so healing to listen to and feel less alone.
The other thing that has been transformative for me is letting go of the need to be an expert – my favorite words now are “I don’t know.” Zen teacher Cheri Huber talked about that beautifully in her Teach Now interview.
Mark: How might someone start teaching?
Jen: Start by making a list of 100 things you’d like to teach. Yes, a hundred – don’t cheat! This forces you to break your ideas and expertise down into smaller and smaller chunks. The biggest mistake most teachers make, especially us creative founts, is trying to cram everything we have learned in our lives into a one-hour class. Start weaning yourself off that right from the beginning and you will be a far better teacher.
Then give some thought to what format fits your personality and life style – are you an introvert or highly sensitive person? Maybe teaching via blog posts and then having dialogues in the comments would be a good place to start. Are you a ham like me? Video is a blast. Like to share knowledge and then get out? One day or half day art demos at art stores and centers might be a good thing to try. Maybe you’re somebody who likes to stay in contact with people over time and see how things evolve? What about teaching a longer class through community ed or if you have a following online, try an online course or membership site. If you like to travel, retreats in various fab locations might appeal.
What format of teaching fits you best these days, Mark?
Mark: I like the variety of doing different types of teaching: one-to-one and group work; live events and e-learning; writing as well as audio and video. I have a low boredom threshold so I couldn’t do just one thing all the time.
It’s also good for students to have plenty of choices and to be able to engage with the material in different formats, e.g. by reading an e-book after a live workshop, or doing some coaching to complement an e-learning program. The fancy term is ‘blended learning’ – using different formats and modalities to help students absorb ideas and apply them in a sustainable way.
Jen, what are the most common mistakes creatives who teach make?
Jen: Getting bored too easily. “I taught it once; do I have to do it again?” This leads to reinventing the wheel, which can actually make your material worse (like overworking a painting) and certainly makes it harder to make a living – if you spend three days prepping every time you teach, your ROI plummets. Plus, it’s great for your bottom line to offer the same course repeatedly because many people who want to take it can’t the first – or the 15th – time you offer it.
I address the old boredom shtick this by leaving open periods for “circle teaching” where participants ask questions and I riff, and also by viewing teaching as a meditation. So I’ve taught this section on self-trust 50 times, how present can I be with the material and people who are here now? Finally, I do let myself do short things that are totally new but I’m careful to document and record so I can turn into something repeatable soon.
Mark, I want to end with you. What do you think of that old hackneyed phrase, “Those that can’t do, teach?”
Mark: It’s tosh!
Jen: Is that all?
Mark: OK, I prefer the saying “You’ve never really understood something until you’ve explained it to somebody else”.
Teaching makes you aware of the blind spots in your own learning – you have to go back and fill in those gaps before you can explain the subject to students and answer their questions properly.
Jen, are you really letting me have the last word?
Jen: No. Teaching in its purest form is simply sharing ideas, energy, and information with others for the sake of serving. If you want to savor life more – to drink in all the beauty and nourishment that’s available- and serve more – care more, open up more, be more curious – and you want to bring your creative work to a whole new level, then try teaching.
Jen Louden is a best-selling personal growth author of six books with almost a million copies in print. She’s teaching a free class on 19th September that’s a sample of her popular Teach Now multi-media program. You can sign up for that free class here (affiliate link).