Over the last several months I’ve been picking up more signal online about Clayton Christensen, a Harvard business professor well-known for his ideas on innovation and disruption. To learn more about Christensen, I listened to an interview conducted with him by former student Horace Dediu on The Critical Path.
The whole interview was great, but what impacted me was the way Dediu calls Christensen “his teacher.” The whole conversation was marked with humility and an obvious two-way foundation of seeking to learn from the other, marked by admissions like “I always learn so much when I talk to you.”
I haven’t consciously used the phrase “teacher” in over a decade—it’s been supplanted by words like professor, instructor, advisor, or lecturer. Teacher, for me, became an institutional term with institutional implications.
That’s really sad.
I started asking myself: Who are my teachers? Who has taught me? I have (and have had) many—including various professors, family members, friends, even strangers—who have profoundly impacted me, taught me lessons, and honed skills in me. This world is full of people who can teach me if I am humble enough to listen.
It’s easy to become cynical and defensive of your own right view of the world. You can start to think you have much to give or share, and that it’s your job to get the message out.
But what if, instead of believing you have figured out so much and have so much to give, you came to view every person you encounter as someone who you can learn deeply from. Assuming that each person you encounter has a more deeply honed perspective than you. That they have approached life or a specific topic with more care and thought than you have. Not everyone has, but why not start from that assumption? Like the Covey adage: Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
What a generous way to live your life.
At the end of Dediu’s interview, Christensen shares his email address and closes with this (I’m paraphrasing):
Please feel free to contact me, especially if you’ve read my work and noticed an inconsistency or example where my ideas don’t work. That would give me the greatest opportunity to learn something new.
Most of us are too concerned with protecting our reputation and being right to honestly desire this type of critical response. Christensen is operating on a completely higher plane here. His goal is to learn, and his ego isn’t threatened by the possibility of correction—instead, he views it as the best possible outcome.
So I am trying to adopt this “seek to learn first, possibly teach later” mindset. I hope to document the process here and will try to approach it with this level of humility and generosity.