Do professionals need coaches?

Last week at the first Icarus St. Louis session, I had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Adam Sachs, a St. Louis area coach. Our discussion about why people are so reluctant to hire coaches for non-athletic reasons for themselves, or for their kids, prompted me to revisit, and rework, some of my earlier thoughts on the question. Unfortunately, I still have only questions, no answers.
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A couple of years ago I was engaged in a discussion related to the question of work/life coaches, here is one of the responses:

Q: If you can’t afford a coach, what are you doing to support your professional growth?
A: I love (?) the assumptive nature of this question: that everyone needs a coach;…  Do professionals need coaches? No, certainly not.

“No, certainly not.” So definitive, as if the very question was insulting. And yet, if the question were adjusted just a little bit, to read, “Do professional athletes need coaches?”, I have a feeling the answer would be more along the lines of, “Of course they do.” I’ve often wondered why this is: why is it acceptable, expected even, that athletes have and need coaches but considered a luxury if someone has a work/life coach and actually a detriment – a sign of weakness – if someone wants or needs a work/life coach?

The answer I quote above was just one response in the discussion, but many (most?) of the answers tended to dismiss the idea that a professional coach is desirable or needed.  The alternatives range from talk with friends, study the success of others, and read and continue to develop your knowledge on the subject of your job.

Imagine if this approach were recommended to athletes, or to the owners of sports franchises. In most cases, such an approach would be a sure path to the loser’s circle, not to mention a quick way to get kicked out of the owner’s office for suggesting such a ridiculous idea.

If you ask a competitive athlete if they have / need a coach the answers will likely range from “Yes” to “Of course” to “Are you kidding?” More and more, if you ask a business executive the question, you will find that they believe a coach is worthwhile, possibly even necessary.

But if you ask the creative, the knowledge worker, the non-executive professional the same question the answers will likely range from “No” to “Huh?” to “Are you kidding?” (And the “Are you kidding” here means something completely different.)

What is it about our work as professionals in business that makes us so different from the work of professionals in sports that we don’t need a coach?

Rehearsal is editing in pre-production

Last week Seth Godin wrote that rehearsing is for cowards. My first thought when I saw that headline was, “Seth Godin just called me a coward!”  If you’ve read my The importance of rehearsal, you know what I mean.

Like most of Godin’s writing, though, you have to take this one in the spirit in which it is written – deliberately extreme headline to catch your attention and then a very specific context in which it applies. In this case, his definition of rehearsal is very narrow and, to me, is really a definition of memorization.

At the end of the article he says that “A well-rehearsed performance will go without a hitch.” As if that is a bad thing. If you are trying to create your art live, then obviously it is bad. But not all art is created live and unfiltered, unedited.

Some art is created in post-production, when the book / album / film is edited into it’s final form.

And some art is created in pre-production, during rehearsal as things are tried and discarded, tried and changed, or new things added.

Rehearsal is simply editing in pre-production.

If your purpose is to win…

…you have already lost.

Competing – and hopefully winning – can be a key part of any journey, but it shouldn’t be the destination. If reaching your destination is all you have to look forward to, what happens when you get there?

Or as I tell my sons: the goal of competition is, of course, to win, but your purpose – for training, for competing – should be to learn, to grow. To have fun.

So you want to be a doctor? Really?

Standardization of medicine as a result of the desire for predictable outcomes. Unbelievable differences between US practice of medicine and doctors in other parts of the world.

Doctors as cogs in the machine as the “art” of medicine is systematically removed from the practice of medicine, despite the fact that those in the need of the most critical medical care require a doctor who grasps the art, not just the science. (Think “House, MD”).

What does it mean to be a “good” doctor? Who are you trying to please, who are you really serving? Should doctors be embarrassed about how much money they make? should they not make so much money? How much is too much?

Why would anyone want to be a doctor under these conditions?

These were all thoughts left rattling around in my mind after reading Atul Gawande’s book “Better”. I’m still not sure what to think.

The lizard brain of Leonardo da Vinci

On my way back to the hotel this evening, I stopped by the El Paso History Museum to visit “The Da Vinci Experience”, an exhibit of machines and models of quite a few of da Vinci’s many inventions and ideas. Over the years I’ve read many books about da Vinci, explored his notebooks online, and even helped my son when he did a project for his world history class.

But to see his ideas physically incarnated was something else altogether.

All of the models were implemented primarily in wood, some set up as static displays (please don’t touch) and some as hands on to play with. If you’ve taken physics classes, or if you are someone who likes to tinker, many of the ideas related to pulleys, gears, and other mechanical gadgets will seem like old hat.

Until, that is, you take a moment to consider that no one taught these things to Leonardo. He had to create the knowledge that, even today, many people find hard to understand. Knowledge that continues – 500 years later – to make our lives better.

How did he do it? Was he smarter than the rest of us, blessed with an inate intelligence that we can only dream of. I don’t think so. Did he have better opportunities than the rest of us? The historical record shows that he started worse off than many and made his own opportunities throughout his life.

One thing is certain, da Vinci made very good use of his time. He may not have been very efficient, and he had a tendency to leave things unfinished. But he had ideas, a lot of ideas, both good and bad. And he wasn’t afraid to pursue them. He didn’t cave in to what Seth Godin calls the resistance, the lizard brain that tries to save us from ourselves.

And I think that is the real genius of Leonardo da Vinci: observe the world and follow your ideas where ever they take you, and don’t let anyone – especially you – convince you otherwise.

The importance of teachers and coaches

How many times have you heard someone say, “Those who can’t do, teach (or coach)”? How many times have you said it, or thought it? I think we all probably have at some point in our lives. Except for those who know early on that what they want to do is teach or coach. They know already that teachers and coaches are valuable for their ability to teach and coach, independent of their ability to “do” what they teach or coach.

Over the weekend I saw the video “What Teachers Make” that tackles this question head on. (Found via Seth’s Blog.)

Back in December 2008, I wrote about Malcolm Gladwell’s Q&A with ESPN during his Outliers book tour, in which he had this to say about coaches:

I always find it incredible that an NFL team will draft a running back in the first round, give him a $10 million signing bonus, and get, maybe, four good years out of him. Suppose you spent $10 million finding and training the equivalent of Mike Leach — someone who could create a system so good that it could make even the most mediocre athletes play like stars. You could get 40 years out of him.

Good teachers and coaches are invaluable to our children. And to adults, if we are smart enough to go out and find one.