What the Best Teachers, Leaders, and Designers Know

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photoI had a professor who assigned mind-bending essays on critical theory. These were complex arguments often written in complex ways (think Heidegger, Hegel, and Kant).

For each essay, she’d require a set of assignments. First, we’d have to wrap our minds around a verbal thicket of words. Then we’d have to sum up the argument we thought the author had made in a single page. Next, we’d have to convert that one page to a single paragraph. Then we’d have to pare that single paragraph down to one sentence. Just when we thought we could congratulate ourselves on our mental prowess, she’d push us one step further. That sentence? Pare it down to a single word.


What did this teacher know? She knew it was all about capturing the essence. She primed us to deepen our understanding to the point where we could abstract out the meaning in a complex argument to a single word.

Reading Drake Baer’s article on design lessons Apple employees take from artists like Picasso brought it all back. Designers work to do the same. They strive to capture the essence of a concept. To do that, they have to strip away all the “noise” as they, like Picasso, pare it down to a set of lines, a splash of color, a single image.

Talented artists do this. Writers. Mathematicians. Designers. Programmers. Chefs. Teachers. Leaders. The list goes on.

Here’s what Picasso – an artist – had to say about arriving at the essence (original quote from Sparks of Genius):

To arrive at abstraction, it is always necessary to begin with concrete reality … You must always start with something. Afterward you can remove all traces of reality. There’s no danger then, anyway, because the idea of the object will have left an indelible mark. 

Here’s what Steve Jobs – a designer – had to say (original quote from Sparks of Genius):

Simple can be harder than complex. You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.

In my first years of teaching, I’d try to teach everything. I hadn’t learned how to capture the essence of the subject, and I hadn’t learned how to focus on the essence of my teaching. Over time, I taught fewer concepts and skills – I learned what was at the heart of the subjects I was teaching. At the same time, I learned what was at the heart of how I was teaching. What helped me do that? I began to realize that the essence of teaching is the learner.

As I’ve grown into leadership roles, I’ve tried to do the same. Over the years, I’ve learned that the essence of leadership is listening and, in the wisest way(s), responding.

What’s the essence you’ve learned to capture?

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