(Editor’s note: Serial entrepreneur Steve Blank is the author of Four Steps to the Epiphany. This column originally appeared on his blog.)
If you’ve had a great career what happens to all your knowledge and experience when you retire?
My wife and I had dinner recently with a friend of hers from high school and Tom, her husband – whom I had never met before. I took one look at his suit and guessed “high-powered lawyer. “ (I was right, the suit probably added another $250 per billable hour.)
Over dinner we got chatting, and I found out that besides the great suit, Tom was actually a pretty remarkable guy. He was a trial litigator – one of the guys that slug it out in court in front of a judge and jury. And Tom wasn’t just any trial lawyer. He was the hired gun that Fortune 100 companies and hedge funds bring in when billions are at stake. Listening to some of his stories over dinner was entertaining enough, but after awhile I realized I was hearing something else – this guy played strategy while his opponents were using tactics.
It turns out that Tom was both a student of military history and a chess player. He described preparing for cases like war.
“Most trial lawyers play defense,” he explained. “I’m on the offense from day one. In depositions and filing motions I’ll use misdirection to get the opposing counsel thinking I’m heading in one direction, and I’m heading in the other. When I file for a Summary Judgment, it’s usually from a direction my opponents never expected.”
He then went on to give me a tour of 30 years of trial lawyer experience.
So I asked, “Did you learn any of this in law school?”
He laughed. “I went to Harvard. They didn’t teach war there.”
“Do any of your junior partners in your firm know how to do what you do?”
“Well they watch me, and I guess they learn by osmosis.”
Then I asked my favorite question: “When you retire, what happens to all the knowledge and experience you’ve acquired?”
You Can’t Take It With You
I think the question caught him a bit by surprise. I explained, “You have a record in winning trials that’s based on a strategy and methodology you developed and you’ve likely have moved the state of the art in your profession – and it’s all going into the trash bin of history – unless you pass it on.”
I asked Tom to think about writing down a longer version of the stories he told me over dinner, almost like an autobiography but focused on his career. And for each big trial or milestone, to summarize it with a “Lessons Learned” section. I observed that at the end of this exercise, he’ll come to one of three conclusions:
1) He has a great collection of war stories to tell while he’s skiing or playing golf
2) He can make a book out of those stories or
3) Buried in the stories and lessons learned was a strategy that was new, unique and worth teaching to future generations of lawyers.
I suggested that he volunteer to guest teach in someone else’s class at a local law school to see if he enjoyed it. His war stories would certainly keep students on the edge of their seats. But more importantly this would help him decide if he wanted to teach as an Adjunct Professor after he retired. If, as I surmised, he actually did push the state of the art in his field forward and his teaching went beyond war stories to a theoretical framework, most schools would be happy for him to develop and teach a class.
I suggested that there were four reasons he ought to take teaching seriously. First, his accumulated knowledge will disappear when he does. Second, it’s incumbent on all of us to make those who come after us smarter than we were. Third, having students question your assumptions makes you smarter (and at our age, growing new neurons is helpful). And finally, for those of us whose career was on a stage, teaching is just another stage with an appreciative audience.
Driving home for dinner, I realized that the same advice for Tom and lawyers would work for professionals in any domain – doctors, engineers, venture capitalists CEO’s and even entrepreneurs. Don’t let your knowledge and experience die with you. If you don’t teach it or write it down, the accumulated knowledge of your career is gone.
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