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Are you teachable?

Oct. 1, 2007
Marlyn and I had been married for more than 15 years when I said to her, “I just figured something out about you and me.
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by Doug Young, MBA

Marlyn and I had been married for more than 15 years when I said to her, “I just figured something out about you and me.” Her curiosity was aroused, and it increased when I added, “You’re smarter than me!” She laughed and so did I, but I insisted that my comment wasn’t a joke. “You avoid the kind of problems that I get myself into, and you have insights that are beyond mine. I’m going to stop competing with you, and I want you to be my teacher.” She agreed, and my most valuable resource suddenly became available to me. But what I didn’t realize was that my ability to use this resource effectively would depend on whether or not I wasteachable.

Years later, the two of us were working on a cassette program, and after I recorded 15 minutes of content, I asked Marlyn what she thought. She told me! She had some positive things to say, but the negatives won out. Would you care to guess my reaction? The noncompete clause quickly went out the window! I immediately proceeded to justify everything that I had recorded, and I had a counterargument for each of her critical comments. Then she stopped me cold! “You asked me to be your teacher,” she said, “and that’s exactly what I’m doing. If you don’t want my insights, let me know. But if you do want them, you have a responsibility to listen to me and to consider what I say!” The words “listen” and “consider” hit me hard. When it came to teachability, I still had a lot to learn.

Your desire to learn

Just recently, this scenario took on new meaning as I read Mitch Anthony’s book, “Selling with Emotional Intelligence.” He identified four major emotional characteristics in the psychological makeup of top sales producers that differentiated them from lower performers - 1) competitive drive, 2) what he calls “achievementality,” 3) teachability, and 4) wit. He acknowledges that you can be successful without being a star in all four categories. However, he says he has never found any people at the top of their field who were not teachable.

Does this finding apply only to those people in sales? It does not in my opinion! It simply confirms what most human resource professionals say about performance in any area. If you hire someone who is teachable, the possibility that this person will be a high-potential employee who can rise in the organization will increase significantly.

Conversely, the most skilled hires who are unteachable will find their progress blocked because they will not effectively address the issues and weaknesses that are holding them back. Anthony quoted one account executive who had painfully identified this personal deficiency. “I now realize that I have been so competitive that I became unteachable. I took criticism as a threat. I think my lack of teachability has held me back. I now realize that my desire to learn is just as important as my desire to earn.”

The teachability factor

As I think about my own desire and ability to learn, I know I have been blessed to have Marlyn as a remarkable resource. I now realize, however, that I could have benefited even more from her wisdom had I let go of those emotional factors that were getting in my way.

How would you apply this information to yourself? Are you satisfied with your “teachability factor,” or would you like to improve in this vital area? Even if your performance level is good, could it be great? Let’s examine some of the attributes of teachable people.

  1. Change-friendly mindset: Change is no longer a concept to be just thought about and studied. It is no longer a force that impacts us for a short time and then leaves us alone. Today’s undeniable reality is that we are living in a moveable world and change is life! It is not even enough to manage change. We must learn to master it - to take control of the change processes and make them a part of our daily routine. Instead of looking for ideas that reinforce what we already know, we must accept the need to embrace change as a personal obligation. Changing is a choice, and our receptivity to it will impact our teachability.
  2. Humility: The door to change is more effectively opened with an attitude of humility. In a society where we are fixated on celebrities whose egos are out of control, this concept is easily lost. And yet, arguably, the greatest basketball coach of all time - John Wooden - said, “What really counts in life is what you learn after you know it all.” To support this precept, Jim Collins, in his foundational book, “Good to Great,” discovered that the finest leaders in corporate America share the trait of personal humility. This does not mean they are lacking in self-confidence. But it does mean they are not so enamored with their own ideas and abilities that they fail to respect, consider, and learn from the thinking and actions of others.
  3. A desire for feedback:People with a high degree of teachability not only want feedback, but they initiate the processes to get that feedback. They invite commentary and critical insight. To do so requires courage and the willingness to be vulnerable, but the payback far exceeds the price.
  4. Curiosity: The teachable mind is a curious mind. I have yet to see the cat that curiosity killed, but I have seen the creativity, the desire for achievement, and the passion for life that characterize the curious person. Curiosity fuels open-mindedness, the ability to learn from our failures and setbacks, and the commitment to improve with the help of others.

Can teachability be learned?

Teachability is a trait which expands the talent you already possess. More importantly, it is the factor that will allow you to surpass those who have talent superior to yours. But as I studied this concept, I kept asking myself if teachability was something that was intrinsic to a person’s nature and could not be learned. My answer came from Mitch Anthony’s research. He identified the fact that once people become aware of the four emotional characteristics that drive star performers, they pay more attention to them, and improvement is evident. We can learn how to learn!

Athletes vs. champions

My favorite anecdote in Anthony’s book is about his conversation with a former Detroit Red Wings coach. From a hockey point of view, the coach essentially confirmed Anthony’s research. He talked about the dime-a-dozen physically gifted hockey players who never live up to their potential. Because of the past success they have experienced by doing things their way, they won’t listen to other perspectives. “If you want athletes, you recruit strength, speed, and agility,” he said. “But if you want champions, you recruit athletes with coachability.” This is simply another example of the difference between being good and being great. I need to be better at considering other ways to do things. I know I am frequently defensive when I hear ideas and feedback that challenge my beliefs. Does any of this apply to you? Teachability is the key to unleashing more of our potential!

Doug Young, MBA, and his spouse Marlyn, MCC, have a professional speaking and executive/team coaching business in Parker, Colo. They co-author this column and share an interest in leading-edge business concepts, achieving personal and professional potential, serving patients, and improving how people work together. Marlyn’s insights into people and relationships and her coaching skills complement Doug’s motivating and mind-expanding presentations. Contact them by e-mail at [email protected], by phone at 877-DMYOUNG, or visit their Web site at

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