The Heart of a Teacher vs. The Heart of a Know-It-All

In technology, the currency of our realm is knowledge, so it’s no surprise that we have a tendency to want to show off that knowledge. And this urge seems to manifest itself in two ways: Being a teacher, or being a know-it-all.

If you work in IT, you’re probably familiar with a know-it-all or two. Talking with them isn’t so much a discussion, but being talked at (often condescendingly). The sensation is similar to shutting a door on your hand. It’s just no fun to be around them. You also probably know a teacher or two, and they’re always a delight to talk to, to discuss with, and it’s a true back and forth.

Most of us have the capacity within us to be both, and few people are all one or all the other. It’s also important to avoid the trap and the lure of being a know-it-all. For most knowledge workers, I think there’s a seductive tendency to be a know-it-all. Most of us want to increase our standing among our peers, and it seems blurting out a fact or opinion can be a good way to do that. In fact, it’s the wrong way.

Obviously, no one wants to be around a know-it-all. Best case, they suck the life and fun out of a room (or chat room), and at worst they create a toxic environment that stunts everyone’s growth, including their own.

Teachers learn more, and learn faster. It’s no accident there are so many blogs started by people in the process of getting their CCIE. Teaching will help you understand any subject at a much deeper level, and blogging about a process like CCIE obtainment is a tried and true studying method. It also reminds me of one of my favorite Einstein quotes.

If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself. -Albert Einstein

Want to get really good? Teach someone. Write a blog article, do a podcast, whatever. The questions you get (that you won’t know all the answers to) will help you fill in the blanks of a subject that you didn’t even know were there.

Want another reason not to be a know-it-all? It’s very hard to reach a really high level and be a know-it-all. All of the really high level people I’ve worked with, they all have aspects of a teacher to them. There are a few fairly accomplished know-it-alls I’m aware of, but it’s easy to see how their attitude limits them. They could be so much more.

Are you a know-it-all or a teacher?

Here’s how you tell the difference between someone who acts like a teacher, versus someone who acts like a know-it-all.

Know It All

  • Offers up an (unsolicited) opinion at any opportunity
  • Very little listening, lots of talking
  • Is the final authority on anything
  • Doesn’t admit ignorance (Either dances around it, or outright lies)
  • Open their mouths to show off
  • Unwilling to be wrong
  • Are no fun to be around

Teacher

  • Listens at least as much as they talk
  • Has opinions, willing to change them as a result of discussion
  • Admits ignorance
  • Are awesome to be around
  • Open their mouths to learn or to teach
  • Happy to be wrong
  • Are awesome to be around

Be a teacher, and not a know-it-all. Many of us have the tendency to act like a know-it-all, and I’ve certainly done my fair share. But it’s avoidable, and beneficial to do so. As the old saying goes, if you’re mouth is open, you’re not learning anything. And we all have plenty to learn. And also really, if you’re a know-it-all, you’re no fun to be around.

Tony Bourke
Tony Bourke is an IT instructor teaching Cisco and other courses for various organizations. He writes about the hilarity of the converged roles at datacenteroverlords.com and random musing on twitter @tbourke. He's also an amateur pilot, skydiver, scuba diver, marathon runner, and crazy cat lady.
  • http://www.brianraaen.com/ Brian Christopher Raaen

    Thanks for the post Tony.  You have challenged me to be careful to not develop the attitude of a know it all, but rather be willing to learn from others.

  • http://twitter.com/guy_morrell Guy Morrell

    Insightful post Tony, thank you. I think this may be one of those posts I need to periodically revisit to benchmark my know-it-all levels.

  • http://showbrain.blogspot.com Ben Story

    Great post Tony.  Definitely going to put this one in my posts I need to reread frequently.  Last summer I had my first opportunity to teach classes on networking.  It is definitely true that you learn more preparing to teach someone else and in answering their questions than by learning on your own.

  • http://twitter.com/NetHeadTD NetHeadTD

    Great post. Teachers rule.

  • http://twitter.com/EinarAleksejev Einar Aleksejev

    Why teach your competitors? Why distribute expensively acquired wisdom for free? You must have a very good reason. Are many smart people silent and just smile listening teachers and know it alls?

    • http://twitter.com/tbourke tbourke

      Are you talking about teaching corporate competitors in the product marketplace or individual people as competitors in the job market? The former isn’t about interpersonal dynamics (most companies can’t be a “know-it-all”), so not really applicable.

      The later, however, is very applicable. Should I train an up and coming whipersnapper who may replace me? Certainly, they could surpass you if they’re A) smarter or B) more ambitious or C) both. 

      But think about it, would not teaching them hold them back (passively)? What about creating an environment where they don’t learn specifically to hold them back (actively). Neither ends up in a good place. 

      If they’re smart and/or more ambitious, they’re going to surpass you anyway. Do you want that talented/ambitious person as a friend/colleague, or do you want them thinking of you as that douche they used to work with. 

      If you teach them, chances are, you both get something out of it. If you hinder them, it hurts them, as well as yourself. 

      • http://twitter.com/EinarAleksejev Einar Aleksejev

        Companies themselves sharing their know-how are probably rather exceptions? There are situations where it pays off, but not by default? I think that every time before sharing something what makes your competive edge is good to think the benefits and damages of doing it. This whole culture of sharing between workers is certainly useful for management ;)

        • Jamiemomeara

           And if everyone has that attitude, society loses. The less willing we are to share with others because they might surpass us, the worse off we are, individually and collectively. At some point, in order to move forward, we need to help and support each other in our endeavors. We can achieve more by working together and solving problems together than by being closed off in our individual cubies, using google to solve our problems.

          • EinarAleksejev

            As I already wrote in my previous comment  “I’m not against sharing or teaching by any means”. You can teach and get paid as author of books, as a lecturer …

      • http://einaraleksejev.eu/ Einar Aleksejev

        This kind of “Job security” does not only suck the life out of team and stir the pot, but is detrimental to career development. Any responsible manager will dismiss such employee despite how “productive” they are . The reason is the longer they are there, the bigger the damage when they leave. I have often observed “irreplaceable” people being replaced, usually at a much smaller cost than anyone imagined ;)

  • MF00

    Great post Tony. I’ve gained a lot of my knowledge from those that chose the roll of teacher. It’s always nice to have someone take you under their wing to show you the ropes. It’s also twice as rewarding to return the favor.