Show Them, Don’t Tell Them

Clayton Christensen, the author and business philosopher, often tells this story about an early meeting with Andy Grove, the CEO of Intel. Grove wanted to know how one of Christensen’s theories applied to Intel’s business.

He was a busy man so he kept asking Christensen to give him the ten minute version of the theory. He kept asking him to cut to the chase. Christensen refused and insisted on delivering a full 30-minute lecture on a steel company that had disrupted the market by tackling the lowest end of the market. And then, as Christensen describes, “When I finished the mini-mill story, Grove said, ‘Okay, I get it. What it means for Intel is…,’ and then went on to articulate what would become the company’s strategy for going to the bottom of the market to launch the Celeron processor.”

This was a pivotal moment for Christensen. He realized that even though business leaders often wanted direct and clear advice, it was actually far more effective to show rather than tell. “When people ask what I think they should do,” he explained, “I rarely answer their question directly. Instead, I run the question aloud through one of my models. I’ll describe how the process in the model worked its way through an industry quite different from their own. And then, more often than not, they’ll say, ‘Okay, I get it.’ And they’ll answer their own question more insightfully than I could have.”

So it goes for our kids. It’s tempting to tell them exactly what they can and can’t do. It’s tempting to tell them what you expect them to do, or explain how the world works. But would you have listened to that when you were their age? What did you do when your parents pretended like they knew what they were talking about?

No, we learn better when we are shown. We drink more deeply when we are gently led to water rather than force fed. You have to give your kids a chance to come to the conclusion on their own. You want to help them learn how to think, not just what to think. Because someday you won’t be here anymore—so show them how to think now, so they can do it on their own.

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