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7 Life Lessons Teaching Can Teach



Dan Balser, director of the Academy at Goodby Silverstein & Partners and former director of the Creative Circus, ponders how the act of teaching can make for better creative directors

7 Life Lessons Teaching Can Teach

20 years ago I was an associate creative director at Publicis in New York City. My partner, Jim Basirico, and I ran creative on the Fujifilm account and had one junior team under us. I knew a good idea when I saw it, but I barely had a clue about what made a good creative director or how to get the best work out of a young team. 
Over the last 18 years, however, I had the privilege of teaching around 2,500 aspiring creatives at The Creative Circus in Atlanta. Spending hours in a classroom with young writers and art directors provides an immediate barometer with thousands of data points. You can see, in real time, whether you’re doing it well. Like a toddler who can’t lie, students show you their true struggles.
Today, I’m the director of the Academy at Goodby Silverstein & Partners. And as we embark on the ambitious project of creating a new school, I’ve quickly realised that our students won’t be the only ones learning. Our teachers will learn to be better creative directors, because the mere act of teaching reveals lessons about life, how to communicate and how to truly see one another. 
Here are a few traits I’ve picked up (if not quite mastered) in two decades in the classroom. The more of these we can all develop, the better.


This is a big duh. Remembering what it was like to be a student or junior, or actively considering what it’s like to be in the room with you, can create space for others to bring their full selves. In other words, get out of the way, and see the person in front of you.


You are the expert, but you don’t know everything. Approach every meeting, presentation and class as if you’re the one with something to learn. Remain curious. And realize the power of relinquishing power.


Seeing something surprising and then recognising potential in it is not always easy. When I enter a room open-minded and mentally limber, I tend to laugh a lot more and clear more roads of possibility for students. 


Know the goal. Know the lesson, the problem to solve, and the team in front of you. Sure, flexibility is cool, but only when it’s built into a master plan.


Chances are pretty good that the impression others have of you is misaligned with the one you have of yourself. Ask. Pay attention to the reactions of others in the room. And be honest when you’re being brittle, basic or brutal.  


The very same words mean very different things to different people. Of course, your feedback made perfect sense in your head. But was it clear to others? Ask.


You know you’re doing the right thing for yourself when the success of others provides the same dopamine hit as nailing a brief on your own. It’s addictive. In a good way.

If you’re curious, observant, patient and open-minded, there’s nothing quite like teaching to show you how to be a better mentor, person, creative director, parent or partner. If you’re a teacher, what have you learned? 

I’d love to learn more.

Dan Balser is director of the Academy at Goodby Silverstein & Partners 

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Goodby Silverstein & Partners, Wed, 24 Nov 2021 16:02:24 GMT