Teaching vs. Coaching

There are two major philosophies when it comes to who we learn from and how we learn: teaching and coaching. While both can add value, when we look at the highest performers in any field we find commonalities between the timing and order of each. We have to learn the rules before we can play the game. If we want to play at the highest level, we’ll require more practice and better feedback. So how should we think about teaching vs. coaching in our own professional lives?

Atul Gawande is a celebrated writer, surgeon, researcher, and was most recently the named CEO of the JPMorgan/Berkshire Hathaway/Amazon healthcare joint-venture. He recently spoke with Shane Parrish of Farnam Street on teaching vs. coaching and many other topics. Gawande pointed out how great musicians will go to a school like Juilliard, graduate, and then be coached by their conductors, peers, and/or individual teachers as they continue to develop at the professional level. For the best, it’s a career-spanning commitment to greatness. Similarly, he pointed to his own track as a surgeon where he went to school, completed his residency, entered into professional practice alongside peers that he was accountable to, and recently has added a coach specifically to help him improve his own teaching skills.

The differentiator between the two approaches is that teaching involves studying the knowledge base of some topic, while coaching involves the practice of the skill with feedback. Both are essential for personal development. Neither ceases to be valuable. Ever.

Beyond our school years, we have to actively seek these relationships out ourselves. It’s a worthwhile exercise to think about who our teachers and coaches are. Not just who they were, but who is teaching and coaching us today? Who do we want to fill that role in our future? Think broadly because these don’t need to be formal relationships. Teachers can include any way we acquire or solidify knowledge. Warren Buffett famously said that by the age of 10, he’d “read every book in the Omaha Public Library with the word finance in the title, some twice.” Coaches can be anyone that provides us with useful feedback. That includes clients, coworkers, managers, and peers – and they don’t even need to know we’ve appointed them to the job.

What matters is that we make sure to structure our professional lives for continued development.  The alternative, professional stagnation, makes the opportunity all the greater for those of us who know who our teachers and coaches are.