When the Grasshopper Teaches the Master

My son has been helping me learn more about Social Media.  He is the one who turned me on to the joys of blogging.  He helped me get started on Twitter too.   As a person with a degree in New Media, he is almost evangelical about the advantages and benefits of social networking. It is the way of the future, he says.  I believe him.  And, I know there is so much more that he can teach me.

Thinking about this more, and in the context of leading organizations, there is a lot to be said for learning from younger people. While we veterans can teach the invaluable lessons of the past, they can teach us the path to the future.  And that is worth paying attention to.

For instance, people of my generation are grappling with the wonders of technology with varying degrees of success.  Some of us are totally immersed and intrigued by what can be accomplished in a wireless world, (including all the cool toys that come along with it). On the other hand, others of us are hard pressed to know how to turn on our computers, if indeed we even own a computer.   But, no matter where we are on the technology learning curve, the one thing we know for sure is that if we are going to learn it well, we have to consult those who have the skill.  And it’s highly doubtful that we will find this expertise in people older than ourselves.

That’s why I like the idea of mentorships in organizations working both ways.   Some people refer to the younger mentor/older mentee relationship as reverse mentorship. I am not so keen on that label because to me it suggests there is something backward about it although I have yet to come up with a better term for it.  I’ll give that some more thought.

It should be pretty simple really.

Take young Person A, who knows something about something and put him, or her, together with older (okay, old then) Person B who doesn’t know much at all about that particular something and then let the learning begin.

All right, so it’s not that simple

People of the older generation… well, we have our pride.  We like the idea of mentoring someone younger because it seems to us to flow with the accepted order of things…  you know, the Master and Grasshopper type of relationship.   However, when it is the Grasshopper doing the teaching, it can make us feel somehow redundant, even stupid and that’s not something one willingly puts a hand up for.

Alternately, people of a younger generation may not see the benefits of slowing down to help us older ones learn things that are, to them, elementary my dear Watson. They may also feel they are carrying a load for someone who might even make more money than they do and from whom they see no reciprocal reward.  When you look at it that way, there’s not much fun in that either.

So to begin with, I think that a successful Young master/Old Grasshopper relationship needs to begin with an attitude check on both sides.

And you spell that R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Of course along with that has to come a certain measure of empathy that allows the older to appreciate the skills and knowledge of the younger; and the younger to give   credence to the lessons that only an older generation can teach.

With that established, I can think of a few practical steps that might help the Young Master/ Old Grasshopper set off on the road to building a mutually rewarding relationship.  Here they are:

Determine a skill base line

There is nothing more counterproductive, or annoying, than making assumptions about what a person knows or does not know.  Spending a little time determining current skill levels within the context of the subject matter is a good use of time.

Take time to set some goals

Technology, for instance, encompasses a huge body of knowledge.  To make some headway and avoid being overwhelmed, discuss what you want to be able to do and how it might benefit your work before you start tackling applications that may, or may not, move you in an optimally beneficial direction.  Goals will also give you benchmarks against which you can monitor progress.  There is something very satisfying about that for both parties in the mentorship.

Establish good communication habits

For the most part this means speaking plainly; being truthful; and regularly checking for understanding.

Have Fun

Working with someone to learn something new and seeing that new thing being applied in real time is exciting!  Enjoy the journey and the person with whom you are taking it and my hunch is, you will both profit from the experience.

Oh and by the way, what was the last thing you learned from a younger person?



Filed under Building Relationships, communication, motivating & Inspiring

14 responses to “When the Grasshopper Teaches the Master

  1. Rob

    Technology is pretty frightening to a lot of people, and to many of the so-called older generation. I think this may be because it is assumed that if it’s new technology, then everything about it must be new. And as such, it comes across as an area that isn’t meant for them. In my experience, and I think in yours too after reading the post, is that this isn’t true at all.

    In reference to social media and blogging, just because the technology seems a bit alien, it doesn’t mean that the reason one engages with it is any less tried and true than simply having a conversation with someone, or expanding upon an idea for the benefit of an interested audience. And that’s what social media really is – a conversation, a platform to share ideas, and to add voices to where technology, and even society, is going.

    There really isn’t anything new about that at all, in effect. It is the core facet of how humanity has operated since history began; to share resources, to learn, and to instruct in kind. And as your post points out, this type of interaction has nothing at all to do with age. It has to do with the value of diverse experience, and the value that can be had in fleshing out the big picture to a degree that wasn’t nearly as immediate in times past.

    Thanks for the post!

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Rob,

      Thanks for your comprehensive comment!

      I like your thought that underneath it all, there isn’t anything new . Because then it becomes a matter of getting used to the delivery system.

      The delivery system and the pace at which it is delivered is the thing I, and others like me, can learn from you.

      Thank you for taking the time to come by! 🙂

  2. Gwen,
    Thanks for your insightful post. I learn every day from my kids and younger employees who just naturally know their way around new technology as if they helped with the design and software programming.

    Common sense and experience; however, is an area they can glean from me. It’s said that, “You can’t teach an “old gal” new tricks” and I will admit that I have to be shown a few more times how to do something than young people, but eventually I catch on because people are patient with me. But then we learned that when studying adult learning theory, right?
    Jonena (Employee performance improvment consultant)

  3. Gwyn Teatro

    Hi Jonena,

    Right! As my husband is fond of saying, “There is nothing wrong with my memory, it’s my Search Engine that is a little faulty!”

    I think you highlight an important point here and that is the importance of patience in the process. Actually, I think that for the most part, younger people are much more patient with us than we are with ourselves. That is, unless they happen to be related to us. 🙂

    Thank you for your comments and for coming by!

  4. Gwyn,
    Wonderful post. I can always stop by when I’m hungry for some food for thought. You are one heck of a chef!

    My major take-away from your post is, respect; and never start a conversation with a younger person with, “when I was your age.” I’m hungry for more. I’ll be back.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Larry,

      It’s always great to hear from you! Yes, if there is one sure way to date yourself, it’s by starting a sentence with “when I was your age”. It causes young eyes to roll up in young heads and then opportunities for actually learning from each other are seriously affected.
      Thanks for coming by. It’s always a pleasure.

  5. Well, the older person has to put up with the younger person’s inability to be a good teacher… but the younger person has usually had to put up with the older person’s experiments in being a parent – so it all evens out.

    Good suggestions about how to even the score when you’re inexperienced about teaching. Thanks

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Franis, good point! There are always trade-offs and compromises on both sides which, as you point out, make things come out even in the end. Thanks for your comment! It made me smile and remember the number of times I blundered around as a parent. Here’s to learning from each other with patience!

  6. Great post, Gywn.

    I’ve been on both sides of this equation. In my early career I consulted with companies to implement organization-wide changes — new technology, management training, downsizing, merging, many types of changes that affected their people.

    Back then I was the younger person helping people adjust to change, and I learned much about how difficult it is for adults to allow themselves to feel uncomfortable and unsure while they are learning. I ended up writing a book about this in the late 80’s called Winning the Change Game.

    Then my life changed when I got Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in early 90’s and I had to leave my burgeoning career and find another way to “be” instead of “do”. I wrote Choosing to Be: Lessons in Living from a Feline Zen Master to chronicle this life change.

    Ah, but then I got well and re-entered the fast paced business world — and, guess what, the technology had changed. Now I had grasshoppers, impatient ones at that, often ignoring my need for help, or just wanting to do it for me, or “explaining” it me in a condescending manner. I could not believe this was happening to me, the person who was always on the leading edge of technology, who patiently taught and supported so many people through the process of leaving what they knew, to go through chaos only to reach a place that at first felt uncomfortable and awkward.

    What was lacking was, indeed, R-E-S-P-E-C-T, but what was also lacking was training — training in how to teach people something new and foreign. Doers are not naturally teachers — they were just doing it in front of me. And they had no skills in translating their own jargon into words I could relate to.

    I came from a systems background and learned about systems thinking from people like Gregory Bateson. He talked a lot about the “patterns that connect”. If you can show someone how something new connects to a pattern they already know, or if you can show them how it is different from what they know. they can grasp it because you are teaching from their point of reference, their way of seeing the world.

    Today we accept software that is full of bugs, training “videos” that are no more than someone going through the motions of using the software in front of us , completely left-brained approaches to training, jargon filled manuals — and we struggle. We struggle mightedly. And yet we continue to buy this stuff and accept that this is just the way it is.

    Time for a revolution, I say. Let’s tell these companies and these grasshoppers that they need to learn something about how to help people change, how to develop training that is more than just showing, and, oh yes, how to respect their customers, their bosses, and their, hate to say it, elders.

    Instead of a world run by technology and techno geeks, let’s take over the palace and bring in the teachers, the trainers, the translators, the systems thinkers, the conceptual right brained people to be the real masters and mentors. And let the techno geeks be the grasshoppers for a change.

    (Hmmm, you seem to have pushed my buttons this early Saturday morning. Sure feels good to get this off my chest:) Thanks again for this great article.

    Kat Tansey
    Practitioner of Change Mastery

    • Dear Kat,

      Whatever you had for breakfast this morning, may I have some? Thank you so much for sharing your story and for a commentary full of passion and common sense. Wow.

      I know just what you mean about trying to learn from folks who have little knowledge about what it takes to help others learn. Transference of knowledge is not, as you so eloquently point out, simply a matter of standing in front of someone; showing them how YOU do it; and then expecting their “light bulbs” to go on immediately. So, I’m with you.

      If more of us had, or could develop, the ability to make the larger connections to familiar systems first to determine where we might put new information it would indeed be easier to absorb.

      Thanks again for adding great value to this post!


  7. my suggestion is “mutual mentorship” .

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Yes, perhaps if we took a little time to understand, acknowledge and appreciate what we each have to bring the relationship, it would at least provide the opportunity for mutual learning.

      Thank you for your comment Miriam and for coming by! 🙂

    • ava diamond (@feistywoman)

      I agree, Miriam. That’s the term I use in organizations and in my speeches. Great minds think alike : )

      • Gwyn Teatro

        And it sounds a heck of a lot better than “Reverse Mentorship” as well! Thanks for your comment Ava!

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