For many, tutoring is an outstanding way to make some extra cash. It offers flexible hours working in a subject area that you probably enjoy.
But in this post I want to expose a hidden benefit of tutoring: it's a worthwhile investment in your future. This is especially true for younger people, as investments generate compounding returns that snowball over time. But young, old or in-between, as long as you have a future, you can invest in it.
In this post I'll describe five ways in which tutoring is a form self-investment.
Tutoring deepens your subject matter expertise
People often say that a great way to learn something is to explain it to others. Very true. When you know that you'll have to explain something, you think about and research the questions they might ask. Or else research the question that they did ask, whose answer you didn't know. Your expertise grows over time.
In many fields, this subject matter expertise is the foundation of your value as an employee. It often gets you in the door. In my case, I had tutored probability, statistics and logic for a few years, and this experience helped me to get a software engineering job related to those areas. Your expertise also allows you to build credibility with others, and to accomplish goals that depend upon that expertise. As your knowledge grows, you may receive consulting opportunities. You may even decide to do something entrepreneurial based on your expertise. No limits.
Tutoring is a solid step toward moving your career in this way. It's is a back-and-forth with different people who will constantly test the limits of your expertise.
Tutoring grows your empathy
A challenge as your expertise grows is that you develop a so-called "expert blindspot"—you can't see things the way a beginner sees them anymore.
Here's an example from a tutoring session I did almost 30 years ago. (I hope the statute of limitations on discussing this session has elapsed.) The student was trying to find the perimeter of a rectangle, and she knew that one side had length 10 (or whatever) and the adjacent side had length 5. She was stuck, so I explained what a perimeter is. Still stuck.
Finally I realized that she didn't know that the opposite sides of a rectangle have the same length. Pure expert blindspot: I took that for granted, but she simply didn't know that. Once I understood the problem, we were able to make forward progress.
Empathy—the ability to truly understand somebody else's perspective—is fundamental to success in life period, not just business. You're much more persuasive when your audience feels that you understand their viewpoint. Products you design feel much more natural and even joyful when they're based on a true understanding of customer needs, goals and desires. You're much more effective in growing people when you can meet them where they are, instead of requiring them to have insights or competencies that they don't yet have. You can better capitalize on other people's good ideas if you're quickly able to understand the contexts in which they are good ideas.
Tutoring grows your empathy. Your assumptions about what students understand will prove wrong. You develop the habit of being on the lookout for such misunderstandings. Over time you learn to detect and address them in real time, and to do so in a tactful way. That's a superpower.
Tutoring increases your drive for impact
One of the joys of tutoring is that as your students transition from struggling to being successful, their successes become your successes, and it's a wonderful source of confidence for them and you. Your growing expertise and ability to detect, diagnose and correct gaps in understanding impacts real people in real ways. Your student aced a test that they would have otherwise failed. You made a difference.
In too many pursuits, it's unclear whether you're making a difference. With tutoring, you'll directly observe your students' growing ability and confidence over time, and you'll hear about it when the student passes a test or a class. Once you get used to making a difference for people, it's hard to settle for doing things where the impact is ambiguous. You become a person who strives for impact.
Tutoring develops your leadership
Something that will make or break you as a tutor is whether you approach the student from a place of humility and service.
It can be hard for a student to say, "I don't understand this and I need your help." We hold intelligence in high regard, and admitting that you don't know something exposes a vulnerability. It's even harder knowing that the tutor does understand it, and at any time could say something that makes you feel badly for not understanding. Yet the student wants to learn, and is willing to humble himself or herself to do so.
An effective tutor is sensitive to the power imbalance, and take steps to neutralize it so that learning can occur. Invariably, the tutor must approach the student in the spirit of service. Here are things that a servant tutor will say:
- "Thanks very much for the opportunity to work with you."
- "Help me understand what you already know about trig identities. That will help me give more relevant explanations."
- "My explanation wasn't very good. Let me try another one."
- "That's awesome that you aced the test. Your hard work is paying off. Thank you for letting me be a part of it."
This servant mindset is a pillar of leadership. A leader isn't somebody with a fancy job title. A leader is simply somebody with at least one follower. The surest way to develop a followership is to develop the habit of serving others. Tutoring is a phenomenal way to develop that.
Tutoring strengthens your network
As you grow other people in your network, your network becomes stronger and more capable. You know more people who are better positioned to take on challenging work. You know them well enough to be able to speak to each other's characteristics and skills.
This doesn't stop with tutoring. In the business world, one of the expectations that companies have of senior-level people is that they help grow less senior people. Probably 80% of this is simply role-modeling behavior. But the other 20% often involves more explicit mentoring relationships. "Mentoring" is just tutoring in a business context.
Some may think of mentoring as a one-way street, but that's not correct. Over time, you end up building close relationships with people who have knowledge and skills that you helped them acquire. They are people you can call upon when you need an insightful perspective or a helping hand.
A parting thought from Warren Buffet
I hope the reflections above have given you a sense for the many benefits of tutoring beyond simple cash flow. No doubt about it—the cash is nice. But the hidden skills you develop as a tutor can have an outsized impact that serves you for your entire life. Tutoring is a superb way to invest in yourself.
I'll close with a quote from a man who is widely regarded as the world's greatest investor, Warren Buffet:
Generally speaking, investing in yourself is the best thing you can do. Anything that improves your own talents; nobody can tax it or take it away from you. They can run up huge deficits and the dollar can become worth far less. You can have all kinds of things happen. But if you've got talent yourself, and you've maximized your talent, you've got a tremendous asset that can return ten-fold.
There you have it. See our post on launching a new private tutoring business to learn more about what it takes to become a private tutor.