Always learning, always teaching

A professor of mine used to often quote Bob Dylan:

He not busy being born is busy dying

It’s a philosophy of life.

Some are comfortable making the same thing the same way their entire career. If you’re good enough, and the product you provide is timeless, say a great whiskey from a recipe honed by generations, you might make it. You’d be fragile, and susceptible to unexpected events, but you might make it through life, happy and able to care for your family and employees.

But if there’s one lesson to be learned from last year’s documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushiit’s that even masters in their craft are constantly learning, constantly looking to improve, always challenging their own assumptions. In Jiro’s case, at age 86 and beyond. Relentlessly.

Stand-up comedian Louis C.K. famously throws out his act every year and writes a new one from scratch, going against the notion that stand-ups like bands should continually play their greatest hits. And it shows, at 45 Louis C.K. is still improving. His fame was earned through years of continual rebirth.

A tried and true way to experience rebirth is to teach. Not necessarily as an academic, mind you, but by giving away your techniques to the up-and-coming. To teach is first to distill what you know, and to know it for yourself in theory as much as you do by instinct and practice. By teaching you will know what you know better than you did, and by giving away your techniques you will empower your peers and competitors. You will be forced to compete creatively and to open new doors for yourself. It’s a bit like running from a pack of wild dogs while dropping behind you a trail of fresh meat. Scary, but the only sure way to keep on your toes and thrive.

The examples are endless, and extend across crafts and lines of business. A strong case in recent years has been Apple. In many ways it taught the technology industry and the business world that designing for the end-user is important, and that vertically-integrated business models are a powerful way to create a consistent, well-designed experience that makes customers happy and keeps them coming back. Today, its competitors have learned. Samsung, Google, Microsoft, and others have improved their design sensibility, they’ve adopted vertically-integrated business models, but all they’ve done is caught up. Apple has known all this for years, and if there’s an optimistic outlook for the company it’s that while everyone is busy catching up, they are busy being born.