Those Who Can Do, Can’t Teach

Adam Grant:

If you want to be great at something, learn from the best. What could be better than studying physics under Albert Einstein?

A lot, it turns out. Three years after publishing his first landmark paper on relativity, Einstein taught his debut course at the University of Bern. He wasn’t able to attract much interest in the esoteric subject of thermodynamics: Just three students signed up, and they were all friends of his. The next semester he had to cancel the class after only one student enrolled. A few years later, when Einstein pursued a position at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, the president raised concerns about his lackluster teaching skills. Einstein eventually got the job after a friend vouched for him, but the friend admitted, “He is not a fine talker.” As his biographer Walter Isaacson summarized, “Einstein was never an inspired teacher, and his lectures tended to be regarded as disorganized.”

Although it’s often said that those who can’t do teach, the reality is that the best doers are often the worst teachers.

Two decades ago, I arrived at Harvard as an undergraduate excited to soak up the brilliance of professors who had won Nobels and Pulitzers. But by the end of the first month of my freshman year, it was clear that these world-class experts were my worst teachers. My distinguished art history professor raved about Michelangelo’s pietra serena molding but didn’t articulate why it was significant. My renowned astrophysics professor taught us how the universe seemed to be expanding, but never bothered to explain what it was expanding into (still waiting for someone to demystify that one).