In Praise of the No Names

My friend Austin just started as a freshman at the University St. Andrew’s in Scotland and posts about his economics class. His original lecturer was a fantastic teacher — fun, passionate about the topic, and full of personal stories. He took a leave of absence but said "Fear not, be excited, my replacement is one of the preeminent economists in the UK." The "preeminent economist," it turns out, is not as engaging or interesting, and not as good a teacher.

Why do people assume a Nobel Laureate in economics will teach economics better than an economist at, say, a liberal arts college? Why do entrepreneurs assume only the top 10 most successful businesspeople can impart the most important wisdom?

The people who’ve taught me the most about business? You probably wouldn’t recognize a single name!

There are two lessons here for me.

1. Being really good at something doesn’t mean you can teach it.

2. The celebrity effect unfortunately obscures the thousands of no names who can be more helpful in your life and your business than people with high name recognition.

8 Responses to In Praise of the No Names

  1. Anonymous says:

    That’s why Harvey Mudd is arguable better than Caltech or MIT.

  2. I definitely agree with this. I’ve come across a significant amount of obscure people who have taught me more than people who are way more well-known. Good teachers are a unique immensely talented breed, just as good entrepreneurs are; unfortunately, these two qualities aren’t always found in the same person.

  3. Sean S. says:

    Ben, I think it may even be true that being really good at something (or extremely knowledgeable about it) could impair the ability to teach the subject. If you know a great deal about, say, Biology, it can be difficult to then translate the information for a beginning student to understand. There are people out there who can do so, and perhaps they make up the best teachers.

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  5. Bernadette says:

    The same goes with the person who changes your life and become a role model. Often time we say “Oprah Winfrey” or “Gandhi” but really it’s that one homeless guy that I see on the streets everyday on Cole and Haight intersection. I don’t see homeless people as lazy, maybe they lack motivation but never lazy. How would they survive if they are too lazy to look for food, clothes, money, companion, shelter, fun and etc.

    Okay because Ben posted this blog, the next time I see this homeless man I am going to ask for his name, so now he is not a “no name” man but John Doe. I am going to be a better stranger today.

  6. Dani says:

    I’ve taken a lot of science, and the big-name doctorates were all terrible teachers –made no effort to translate their genius for us mortal students.

    The best science professors? The ones who admitted they had trouble with science once upon a time and so had to find different ways to approach it. They had the most versatile teaching techniques, and had really figured out how to explain things for learning styles other than “genius.”

  7. PRoales says:

    I agree with you a lot Ben, but my experience on this topic has been quite inverted.

    My best most interesting teachers have been the big names, that teach in packed 500 person lecture halls.

    The small 20 person group lectures, that are taught by Associate Professors, usualy fairly poor.

    One experience still. I wonder if there is any data from studies out there on this?

  8. matt says:

    In some way it reinforces the saying, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.”

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