During my mid-twenties, I played drums in a band where everyone else was ten years older than me. They were good players and songwriters; organized and well-resourced. I became a better player by osmosis, and learned a lot about managing bands and booking gigs.
My bandmates also gave me plenty of insight and perspective about — for lack of a better phrase — everyday grown-up stuff. We’d chat during breaks about what we were up to that week or in general. My comments, then, often involved things they’d already experienced, like getting a mortgage or approaching your boss for a raise.
As a result, I got a lot of useful, casual advice. Sometimes, they’d connect me with people they knew who had more experience with whatever I was on about. More than just talking about home equity or paychecks, however, they taught me how to pay knowledge forward.
It’s a concept we consider a lot at The Learning Cooperatives. I look at it as: What is our place in the knowledge food chain, so to speak, and how do we best position our members to be part of it, too?
For staff and mentors at the cooperatives, that means imparting knowledge without being compulsory: not insisting that the teenagers listen to what we think they should know, nor forcing them to do what we tell them. And, for the young people, it’s knowing how to go out and find the information they want — and understanding how people will help them.
Even then, sometimes the roles aren’t always clean cut. It’s not unheard of, for instance, for a member to lead a class when they’re knowledgeable on the subject.
So, I’ve landed on the idea of “paying knowledge forward” in small, casual chunks. During a journalism seminar, for instance, we discussed not only how to write a story, but also the mechanics of emailing people you want to interview. Or, during a rant … I mean, lecture … about the rise of mass media in the twentieth century, I mentioned, as an aside, a book from which I pulled a lot of information. At our next meeting, one of the members showed up with a copy she’d bought for herself.
Ideas about how to exchange knowledge freely pop up in books like Everywhere All the Time: A New Deschooling Reader. In it, Matt Hern writes:
I am not against all forms of teaching. It is a privilege and a joy to help someone do something he or she has freely chosen to do, provided that we are invited to help. I am against unasked-for, I’m-doing-this-for-your-own-good teaching … I want to live in a society where causal, asked-for teaching is a matter of courtesy, not a way to make a quick buck.
More practically in The Art of Self-Directed Learning, Blake Boles devotes a whole chapter, “E-mailing Strangers,” to how teens can reach out for expert advice on virtually any topic. Reading that in my thirties reminded me again of that band, and how I learned the art of paying knowledge forward.
One time, I avoided reaching out to someone at a music school after the guitarist recommended I speak to him. I just couldn’t navigate the stupid minutiae of writing a cold email to a professional reference. Another time, I didn’t want to connect with a friend of the bassist about improving my resume because I felt like I’d be wasting her time.
In both these cases, those guys set me up with little nuggets of knowledge that, arguably, changed the way I do things today.
The guitarist told me not to worry so much about the email. Just keep it short and sweet, he said. Explain quickly what you’re emailing him about, and let him know who sent you.
The bassist responded similarly: No reason to worry. If she had time, she’d help out. “Everybody helps everybody out because everybody always has to reach out to someone else about something,” he said. “That’s sort of the way it works.”
Today, both these ideas seem dirt simple to me. But when I was 23, they were major paradigm shifts. You mean I can just hit up some dude who’s like, twenty times more accomplished than me, and just ask him a question? You mean a woman I don’t know at all will take a few minutes out of her day to give me a few hints about sprucing up a resume?
But they did. What I took away from those exchanges, more than anything else, was how easy it is to pay knowledge forward, and how impactful that small effort can be. And, recently, that came full circle for me.
It happened when a teenage drummer asked me about buying new cymbals. Rather than rattle off brands and models, or try to describe their sounds, I suggested he play every cymbal every time he went to a big music store.
It’s the best way to hear them for yourself and find out what you like. I do it all the time: Walk in with a pair of sticks, play a few cymbals to see if I want to replace any of mine, and often leave without buying any.
But as a teenager, he always saw kids get chased out of stores for messing around. He didn’t realize he was allowed to try out the gear, and wasn’t comfortable approaching a salesperson. So, we talked about exactly what to say when you’re asking to try out a bunch of instruments; what to listen for when playing them and how to treat the gear and store respectfully.
A few days later, he sent me a photo of his new hi-hats. They weren’t his first choice based on what he’d read about other models, he said, but after playing these he was confident they fit his style better.
What took maybe five minutes of my time helped this drummer make a confident investment. Just like that guitarist years ago took five minutes to impart the knowledge of how to connect with other professionals. And, just like the bassist took five minutes to teach me about paying that knowledge forward.