Day 1: Composition
If you are a highly talented person, you may have a tough time with teachability. Why? Because tal-
ented people often think they know it all. And that makes it difficult for them to continually expand
their talent. Teachability is not so much about competence and mental capacity as it is about atti-
tude. It is the desire to listen, learn, and apply. It is the hunger to discover and grow. It is the will-
ingness to learn, unlearn, and relearn. I love the way Hall of Fame basketball coach John Wooden
states it: “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”
When I teach and mentor leaders, I remind them that if they stop learning, they stop leading. But
if they remain teachable and keep learning, they will be able to keep leading. Whatever your talent
happens to be—whether it’s leadership, craftsmanship, entrepreneurship, or something else—you
will expand it if you keep expecting and striving to learn. Talented individuals with teachable atti-
tudes become talent-plus people.
Describe your attitude toward learning when you were a child.
How would you describe your attitude toward teachability now? To get a realistic view, list all the
things you initiated and completed in order to learn within the last twelve months.
Leonardo da Vinci wrote, “Iron rusts from disuse; stagnant water loses its purity and in cold
weather becomes frozen; even so does inaction sap the vigor of the mind.”¹ That distaste for inac-
tion drove his intellectual curiosity his entire life. Leonardo da Vinci’s love for learning never
stopped. He was learning and writing his discoveries in his notebooks until the very end of his life.
And it is the main reason we remember him.
The good news is that we don’t have to have the talent of a Leonardo da Vinci to be teachable. We
just need to have the right attitude about learning. To do that, consider the following truths about
1. Nothing Is Interesting If You Are Not Interested
Management guru Philip B. Crosby writes in his book Quality Is Free,
There is a theory of human behavior that says people subconsciously retard their own intel-
lectual growth. They come to rely on clichés and habits. Once they reach the age of their own
personal comfort with the world, they stop learning and their mind runs on idle for the rest of
their days. They may progress organizationally, they may be ambitious and eager, and they may
even work night and day. But they learn no more.²
It’s a shame when people allow themselves to get in a rut and never climb out. They often miss
the best that life has to offer. In contrast, teachable people are fully engaged in life. They get excited
about things. They are interested in discovery, discussion, application, and growth. There is a defi-
nite relationship between passion and potential.
German philosopher Goethe advised, “Never let a day pass without looking at some perfect work
of art, hearing some great piece of music and reading, in part, some great book.” The more engaged
you are, the more interesting life will be. The more interested you are in exploring and learning, the
greater your potential for growth.
How are you engaged in the world around you? What do you take the time to notice?
2. Successful People View Learning Differently from Those Who Are Unsuccessful
After more than thirty five years of teaching and training people, I’ve come to realize that suc-
cessful people think differently from unsuccessful ones. That doesn’t mean that unsuccessful peo-
ple are unable to think the way successful people do. (In fact, I believe that just about anyone can retrain himself to think differently. That’s why I wrote Thinking for a Change—to help people learn
the thinking skills capable of making them more successful.) Those successful thinking patterns
pertain to learning as well.
Teachable people are always open to new ideas and are willing to learn from anyone who has
something to offer. American journalist Sydney J. Harris wrote, “A winner knows how much he still
has to learn, even when he is considered an expert by others. A loser wants to be considered an ex-
pert by others, before he has learned enough to know how little he knows.” It’s all a matter of atti-
What is your area of expertise? How do the talents you listed in Chapter 1 contribute to your success
in this area?
What do you still have to learn about your area of expertise? Can the mentor you listed in Chapter 6
help you develop your skills, or is there someone else you should approach for help?
It’s truly remarkable how much a person has to learn before he realizes how little he knows. Back in
1992, I wrote a book called Developing the Leader Within You. At the time, I thought, I’ve had some
success at leadership. I’ll write this book, and it will be my contribution to others on this important sub-
ject. I then put everything I knew about leadership in that book. But that book was only the begin-
ning. Writing it made me want to learn more about leadership, and my drive to learn went to an-
other level. I searched out more books, lectures, people, and experiences to help me learn. Today,
I’ve written a total of eight books on leadership. Am I finished with that topic? No. There are still
things to learn—and to teach. My leadership world is expanding, and so am I. The world is vast,
and we are so limited. There is much for us to learn—as long as we remain teachable.
3. Learning Is Meant to Be a Lifelong Pursuit
It’s said that the Roman scholar Cato started to study Greek when he was more than eighty years
old. When asked why he was tackling such a difficult task at his age, he replied, “It is the earliest age
I have left.” Unlike Cato, too many people regard learning as an event instead of a process.
Someone told me that only one third of all adults read an entire book after their last graduation.
Why would that be? Because they view education as a period of life, not a way of life!
Learning is an activity that is not restricted by age. It doesn’t matter if you’re past eighty, like Cato,
or haven’t yet entered your teens. Author Julio Melara was only eleven years old when he began to
acquire major life lessons that he has been able to carry with him into adulthood and to teach oth-
ers. Here are some of the things he’s learned, taken from his book It Only Takes Everything You’ve
Got!: Lessons for a Life of Success:
Here is a list of all the jobs you will not find on my resume but lessons that have lasted a lifetime:
• Started cutting grass for profit at age 11 Lesson learned: It is important to give things a clean, pro-
• Stock clerk at a local food store Lesson learned: Making sure that if I am going to sell something,
the merchandise needs to be in stock.
• Dishwasher at local restaurant Lesson learned: Somebody always has to do the job no one else
wants to do. Also, most people have a lot of food on their plates. (They do not finish what they
• A janitor at an office building Lesson learned: The importance of cleanliness as it related to
• Fry and prep cook at a steak house Lesson learned: The importance of preparation and the im-
pact of the right presentation.
• Construction helping hand (lug wood and supplies from one place to another) Lesson learned: I
do not want to do this for the rest of my life.
• Sold newspaper subscriptions for daily paper Lesson learned: The job of rejection—had to knock
on at least 30 doors before I ever sold one subscription.
• Shipping clerk at a plumbing supply house Lesson learned: Delivering your project or service on
time is just as important as selling it.
• Breakfast cook at a 24 hour restaurant Lesson learned: How to do 15 things at once. Also learned
about the weird things people like to eat on their eggs.
• Cleaned cars at detailing shop Lesson learned: The importance of details (washing vs. detailing).
You can pay $15 just to wash the outside of the car or $150 to clean the car inside and out and
cover all the details. Details are a pain, but details are valuable.
• Shoe salesman at a retail store Lesson learned: To sell customers what they want and like. Also,
learned to compliment people and be sincere.
• Busboy at a local diner Lesson learned: People enjoy being served with a smile and they love a
Every stage of life presents lessons to be learned. We can choose to be teachable and continue to
learn them, or we can be close-minded and stop growing. The decision is ours.
Make your own list of lessons learned from the smaller jobs or activities you’ve participated in.
How do these lessons factor into what you are doing today?
4. Talented People Can Be the Toughest to Teach
The other day I was having lunch with my friend Sam Chand, and we were talking about talent and
teachability. Sam mentioned that he had a lot of musical talent. “I can play any type of keyboard,
accordion, drums, guitar, saxophone, fiddle,” he said. “I can basically play anything. If I hear a tune
once, I can play it.”
That sounds like a wonderful gift. But Sam said that when he decided to raise his saxophone play-
ing to a new level by taking jazz lessons, he quickly became frustrated. Because he had played by
ear and music had always come so easily to him, he didn’t possess the patience and perseverance
he needed to succeed. Eventually he gave up.
One of the paradoxes of life is that the things that initially make you successful are rarely the
things that keep you successful. You have to remain open to new ideas and be willing to learn new
skills. J. Konrad Hole advises,
If you cannot be teachable, having talent won’t help you.
If you cannot be flexible, having a goal won’t help you.
If you cannot be grateful, having abundance won’t help you.
If you cannot be mentorable, having a future won’t help you.
If you cannot be durable, having a plan won’t help you.
If you cannot be reachable, having success won’t help you.³
This may sound strange, but don’t let your talent get in the way of your success. Remain teach-
In the introduction of this workbook, you were asked to give an example of a time when you were
able to coast on your talent. How could relying solely on talent hinder your success?
5. Pride Is the Number One Hindrance to Teachability
Author, trainer, and speaker Dave Anderson believes that the number one cause of management
failure is pride. He writes,
There are many reasons managers fail. For some, the organization outgrows them. Others don’t
change with the times. . . . A few make poor character choices. They look good for a while but
eventually discover they can’t get out of their own way. Increasingly more keep the wrong people
too long because they don’t want to admit they made a mistake or have high turnover become a
negative reflection on them. Some failures had brilliant past track records but start using their
success as a license to build a fence around what they had rather than continue to risk and
stretch to build it to even higher levels. But all these causes for management failure have their
root in one common cause: pride. In simplest terms, pride is devastating . . . the pride that in-
flates your sense of self-worth and distorts your perspective of reality.
While envy is the deadly sin that comes from feelings of inferiority, the deadly sin of pride comes
from feelings of superiority. It creates an arrogance of success, an inflated sense of self-worth
accompanied by a distorted perspective of reality. Such an attitude leads to a loss of desire to learn
and an unwillingness to change. It makes a person unteachable.
In what area of your life are you tempted to be prideful?
THE PROBLEMS WITH PRIDE
Pride is such a huge barrier to success and the development of talent that we need to examine it in
greater detail. Here are just a few of the negative effects of pride as they relate to teachability:
1. Pride Closes Our Minds to New Ideas
I’ve yet to meet a conceited, arrogant, or prideful person who possessed a teachable spirit.
How about you? The writer of Proverbs observed, “Do you see a man wise in his own eyes?
There is more hope for a fool than for him.”⁴ Teachability in its most fundamental form is a will-
ingness to open our minds to new ideas. Pride prevents that.
2. Pride Closes Our Minds to Feedback
Stephen Covey comments, “It takes humility to seek feedback. It takes wisdom to understand it,
analyze it, and appropriately act on it.” I’ve already confessed to you that I have not always been a
good listener. But I’ve learned over the years that I cannot do anything of real value alone. Achieve-
ment requires teamwork, and none of us is as smart as all of us. Having learned that lesson, I am
continually asking members of my team to give me input on my ideas. I find this most valuable be-
fore team members or I take action, but I also solicit feedback throughout the process. The com-
munication process looks something like this:
The process begins with an idea, which becomes improved through the interaction of the team.
But what also happens is that because of the input and feedback I receive, my next idea improves.
As long as I am willing to listen to and embrace feedback, it improves whatever task we’re working
on and it improves me!
3. Pride Prevents Us from Admitting Mistakes
Fear may keep some people from admitting mistakes, but pride is just as often the cause. The prob-
lem is that one of the best ways we grow is by admitting mistakes and learning from them. Writer
William Bolitho observed, “The most important thing in life is not to capitalize on our gains. Any
fool can do that. The really important thing is to profit from our losses. That requires intelligence
and makes the difference between a man of sense and a fool.”
When are you unwilling or hesitant to admit your mistakes? Why?
4. Pride Keeps Us from Making Needed Changes
Anytime we do a job and think we did it well, we become reluctant to make changes to our work. We
become dedicated to the status quo instead of progress. Why? Because we have an emotional in-
vestment in it. For example, anytime in the past I’ve taken a leadership position in which I inherited
a staff, I had little reluctance to make changes for the good of the organization. If someone wasn’t
doing the job and would not or could not grow and improve, I would replace him or her. However,
if someone I selected was falling short, I was much slower to make the needed change. Pride
caused me to defend what sometimes should not have been defended. When it comes to changing
others, we want to do it immediately. But changing ourselves? Not so fast! That’s a problem.
HOW TO OVERCOME A PRIDE PROBLEM
If pride is an obstacle to your growth, then you need to take some deliberate and strategic steps to
overcome it. That may not be easy. Founding Father Benjamin Franklin observed, “There is perhaps
not one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as
much as one pleases, it is still alive. Even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I
should probably be proud of my humility.” To start the process, here is what I suggest:
1. Recognize and Admit Your Pride
The first and most difficult step in overcoming pride is recognizing that it’s a problem since those
who are bound by it are often unaware of it. To defeat pride, we need to embrace humility, and few
desire that. Writer and apologist C. S. Lewis remarked, “If anyone would like to acquire humility, I
can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realize that one is proud. And a biggish step,
too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, you are very
How can you “embrace humility”?
To try to maintain perspective, I have carried a poem by Saxon White Kessinger with me. And
when I’m starting to think that I’m really important, I pull it out and read it. The poem is called
Sometime when you’re feeling important;
Sometime when your ego’s in bloom
Sometime when you take it for granted
You’re the best qualified in the room,
Sometime when you feel that your going
Would leave an unfillable hole,
Just follow these simple instructions
And see how they humble your soul;
Take a bucket and fill it with water,
Put your hand in it up to the wrist,
Pull it out and the hole that’s remaining
Is a measure of how you’ll be missed.
You can splash all you wish when you enter,
You may stir up the water galore,
But stop and you’ll find that in no time
It looks quite the same as before.
The moral of this quaint example
Is do just the best that you can,
Be proud of yourself but remember,
There’s no indispensable man.
People have a natural tendency to believe—or to hope—that they are indispensable, that the
world will stop and take notice if anything happens to them. But I have to tell you, as someone
who has presided over many funerals, life goes on. When someone dies, the family and friends
closest to him grieve. But the rest of the people who attend the reception after the funeral are
more worried about the potato salad than the dearly departed. Do your best, but remember that
no one is indispensable.
2. Express Gratitude Often
Once when I was chatting with Zig Ziglar, he told me that he thought the least expressed of all
virtues is gratitude. I think that is true. I also think that it is the most appreciated expression by
recipients. I think Oprah Winfrey’s suggestion for cultivating gratitude is excellent. She says,
Keep a grateful journal. Every night, list five things that happened this day that you are grateful
for. What it will begin to do is change your perspective of your day and your life.
If you can learn to focus on what you have, you will always see that the universe is abundant;
you will have more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never have enough.
Therein lies the problem of people filled with selfish pride: they are not grateful because they
never think they get as much as they deserve. Expressing gratitude continually helps to break this
kind of pride.
3. Laugh at Yourself
I love the Chinese proverb that says, “Blessed are they that laugh at themselves, for they shall
never cease to be entertained.” People who have the problem of pride rarely laugh at themselves.
But engaging in humor at your own expense shows that pride isn’t a problem, and it is a way of
breaking a pride problem.
TALENT + TEACHABILITY = A TALENT-PLUS PERSON
PUTTING THE TALENT-PLUS FORMULA INTO ACTION
If you want to expand your talent, you must become teachable. That is the pathway to growth.
Futurist and author John Naisbitt believes that “the most important skill to acquire is learning how
to learn.” Here is what I suggest as you pursue teachability and become a talent-plus person:
1. Learn to Listen
The first step in teachability is learning to listen. American writer and philosopher Henry David
Thoreau wrote, “It takes two to speak the truth—one to speak and one to hear.”
Being a good listener helps us to know people better, to learn what they have learned, and to show
them that we value them as individuals.
Abraham Lincoln was one of the most teachable presidents. When he began his career, he was
not a great leader. But he grew into his presidency. He was always an avid listener, and as president,
he opened the doors of the White House to anyone who wanted to express an opinion to him. He
called these frequent sessions his “public opinion baths.” He also asked nearly everyone he met to
send him ideas and opinions. As a result, he received hundreds of letters every month—many more
than other presidents had received in the past. From this practice he learned much. And even if he
didn’t embrace the arguments, he learned more about how the letter writers thought, and he used
that knowledge to help him craft his policies and persuade others to adopt them.
As you go through each day, remember that you can’t learn if you’re always talking. As the old
saying goes, “There’s a reason you have one mouth but two ears.” Listen to others, remain humble,
and you will begin to learn things every day that can help you to expand your talent.
For the next week, practice active listening. Make it a point to ask others for their advice and to
withhold advice you would usually give. At the end of each day, write down something you
learned by being attentive to others.
2. Understand the Learning Process
Sometimes things are painfully obvious and need little explanation. For example, read the following
humorous warnings and pieces of advice collected from the military:
“Aim towards enemy.”
—Instruction printed on U.S. rocket launcher “When the pin is pulled, Mr. Grenade is not our
—U.S. Army “If the enemy is in range, so are you.”
“It is generally inadvisable to eject directly over the area you just bombed.”
—U.S. Air Force manual “If your attack is going too well, you’re probably walking into an ambush.”
—Infantry journal “Never tell the platoon sergeant you have nothing to do.”
—Unknown army recruit “Don’t draw fire; it irritates the people around you.”
—Your buddies “If you see a bomb technician running, try to keep up with him.”
—U.S. ammo troop⁵
When things aren’t so obvious, it is helpful to understand the learning process in order to learn
and grow. Here is how it typically works:
Step 1: Act.
Step 2: Look for your mistakes and evaluate.
Step 3: Search for a way to do it better.
Step 4: Repeat.
Remember, the greatest enemy of learning is knowing, and the goal of all learning is action, not
knowledge. If what you are doing does not in some way contribute to what you or others are doing
in life, then question its value and be prepared to make changes.
3. Look for and Plan Teachable Moments
I recently read a book called The Laws of Lifetime Growth that presents an excellent perspective on
this idea. The second law states, “Always make your learning greater than your experience.” Authors
Dan Sullivan and Catherine Nomura go on to explain,
Continual learning is essential for lifetime growth. You can have a great deal of experience and
be no smarter for all the things you’ve done, seen, and heard. Experience alone is no guarantee
of lifetime growth. But if you regularly transform your experience into new lessons, you will
make each day of your life a source of growth. The smartest people are those who can trans-
form even the smallest events or situations into breakthroughs in thinking and action. Look at
all of life as a school and every experience as a lesson, and your learning will always be greater
than your experience.⁶
The authors are describing a lifestyle of teachability. If you look for opportunities to learn in every
situation, you will become a talent-plus person and expand your talent to its potential. But you can
also take another step beyond that and actively seek out and plan teachable moments. You can do
that by reading books, visiting places that will inspire you, attending events that will prompt you to
pursue change, listening to lessons, and spending time with people who will stretch you and ex-
pose you to new experiences.
Seek out, plan, and schedule teachable moments for the next year. Select one conference to at-
tend, one inspiring location to visit, a minimum of six books to read, another six lessons or
books to listen to, and at least two important people to meet. Don’t forget to create an action
plan to apply what you’ve learned after each of these events.
I’ve had the privilege to spend time with many remarkable people, and the natural reward has
been the opportunity to learn. In my personal relationships, I’ve also gravitated toward people from
whom I can learn. My closest friends are people who challenge my thinking—and often change it.
They lift me up in many ways. And I’ve found that I often live out something stated by Spanish
philosopher and writer Baltasar Gracian: “Make your friends your teachers and mingle the pleasures
of conversation with the advantages of instruction.” You can do the same. Cultivate friendships
with people who challenge and add value to you, and try to do the same for them. It will change
4. Make Your Teachable Moments Count
Years ago I saw a Peanuts cartoon by Charles Schulz that showed Charlie Brown at the beach build-
ing a magnificent sand castle. With it completed, he stood back to admire his work, at which point
he and his work were engulfed by a downpour that leveled his beautiful castle. In the last frame, he
says, “There must be a lesson here, but I don’t know what it is.”
Unfortunately that’s the way many people feel after a potentially valuable experience. Even people
who are strategic about seeking teachable moments can miss the whole point of the experience. I
say this because for thirty years I’ve been a speaker at conferences and workshops—events that are
designed to help people learn. But I’ve found that many people walk away from an event and do
very little with what they heard after closing their notebooks. It would be like a jewelry designer
going to a gem merchant to buy fine gems, placing them carefully into a case, and then putting that case on the shelf to collect dust.
What’s the value of acquiring the gems if they’re never going to be used?
We tend to focus on learning events instead of the learning process. Because of this, I try to help
people take action steps that will help them implement what they learn. I suggest that in their notes,
they use a code to mark things that jump out at them:
T indicates you need to some time thinking at that point.
C indicates something you need to change.
A smiley face means you are doing that thing particularly well.
A indicates something you need to apply.
S means you need to share that information with someone else.
After the conference I recommend that they create to-do lists based on what they marked, then
schedule time to follow through.
5. Ask Yourself, Am I Really Teachable?
I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: all the
I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: all the good advice in the world won’t help if you don’t
have a teachable spirit. To know whether you are really open to new ideas and new ways of doing
things, answer the following questions based on a list prepared by Marty Williams:
1. Am I willing to listen more than talk?
2. Do I admit when I am mistaken?
3. Do I observe before acting on a situation?
4. Am I able to agree to disagree with others’ ideas?
5. Do I desire information more than answers?
6. Do I enjoy asking questions?
7. Am I open to suggestions and new ideas?
8. Do I feel comfortable asking for advice or directions?
9. Am I a patient and willing “student”?
10. Do I enjoy reading for information that is practical and applicable?
11. Do I seek out new perspectives on the questions of life?
12. Can I appreciate criticism without being deeply wounded?
If you answered no to one or more of these questions, then you have room to grow in the area of
teachability. You need to soften your attitude and learn humility, and remember the words of John
Wooden: “Everything we know we learned from someone else!”
Thomas Edison was the guest of the governor of North Carolina when the politician compli-
mented him on his creative genius.
“I am not a great inventor,” countered Edison.
“But you have over a thousand patents to your credit,” the governor stated.
“Yes, but about the only invention I can really claim as absolutely original is the phonograph,”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand what you mean,” the governor remarked.
“Well,” explained Edison, “I guess I’m an awfully good sponge. I absorb ideas from every course I
can, and put them to practical use. Then I improve them until they become of some value. The
ideas which I use are mostly the ideas of other people who don’t develop them themselves.”
What a remarkable description of someone who used teachability to expand his talent! That is
what a talent-plus person does. That is what all of us should strive to do.
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