When I was learning to drive, my driving instructor told me that when I pulled to a stop behind another car, I should always be able to see its rear bumper. Following this simple rule meant that I never had to learn later in life how to stop at an appropriate distance behind someone at a stop light. It seems that we often miss out on the answers to those key questions, either because no one thinks to teach us something so basic or because we chose not to be listening. When we learn those lessons later – sometimes years later – we often think, if I’d only known that, things would have been so much easier.
When I asked some friends for examples of “if I’d only known” moments, this is what I heard:
If I’d know the benefits of a high protein diet, I would have cut carbs a long time ago!
The most important lesson I learned way too late is to figure out the purpose of any activity.
If I’d only known how to breathe properly and mindfully I wouldn’t have needed medication for panic attacks all those years.
If I’d only known that not everything needs to be perfectly planned before starting, I would have been a lot more productive.
There is a surprisingly large difference between knowing nothing about a subject and knowing enough to start learning about it. It is in this gap that those “if I’d only known” lessons are especially important. Students are often looking for something that will give them a grasp on the subject. During that time their minds are wide open, as they look for the hook that will give them a place to start. If you can provide that, it may prevent an “if I’d only known” moment somewhere down the road. It is also the time when providing the wrong information can be particularly harmful.
If you are in the position of providing people with new information, ask yourself these questions:
- What have I learned about this subject that I wish I had known sooner?
- Is there an analogy that can be used to make this foreign subject more familiar?
- What does this person already know about the subject that can be referenced?
- In what way is this subject similar to something that this person already understands?
- How can I make this person feel at ease with their current level of understanding?
Think carefully about how you will introduce a new subject, because it will be very difficult to undo the first few concepts that a person hears. If you do misspeak, clear things up right away: “Wait, I said that wrong, let me start again”, is a good approach.
If you’re really lucky, people will recall your words years later. I still remember a lesson on flying instrument approaches with a very experienced pilot named Dan Chauvet who told me, “if the needles aren’t centered [i.e. you’re off-course], you need to make very small corrections but you need to do it right now.” Thanks, Dan.
Photo credit: Martyn Wright