My father has a word he likes that he picked up in his own career: “repeatable-ize.” If you accomplish something good, he’ll say: “That was great, but can you repeatable-ize it?” He’s asking if you can turn a project into a process; can you not only repeat it yourself, but can you make it repeatable for others?

Being good at something is easier than teaching other people how to be good at that thing. In fact, the better you are at something, the harder it might be for you to teach it, because so much of your skill might be second nature by now (if it wasn’t natural talent to begin with!).

My grade-school aged daughter went to a robotics class hosted by the Girl Scouts (which like… how cool), and they did a really awesome demonstration for how difficult it is to write instructions as a precursor to explaining the literal nature of coding. They had the girls write down how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and then the instructor followed those directions as a robot might, making zero “common sense” corrections. So if you wrote “put the peanut butter on the bread,” then the instructor put a jar of peanut butter on top of the loaf of bread, still in the bag. If you wrote “put jelly on your knife” without first saying “open the jar of jelly,” guess what happened? You get the idea – and the kids did too, when it was done.

That’s what teaching is like. It’s harder than you think to pass on your skills, because so much of what you do is so integrated into your process that you can’t atomize it anymore. All the sugar has dissolved into the water so you can’t see the individual grains anymore.

So, here are some of my “top tips” for how to repeatable-ize something.

  1. Nested Units are your friend. What do I mean? Let’s say you’re trying to write instructions for lawn care to your teenager who hasn’t done it before. You can make one of the instructions “start the lawnmower,” but that actually might be half a dozen steps on its own that they don’t know how to do (check the fuel? oil? prime the pump? pull cord? etc.) – but if they do know you’re wasting time. So nest down. Write something like “Step 3: Start The Lawnmower (for instructions on how to do this, see Appendix 3).” In general, instructions of the same “level” of complexity belong at the same level.
  2. Know your audience. The instructions for how to drive to Taco Bell are very different for a 15-year-old than for an out-of-town adult friend. Or for a foreigner that isn’t used to America’s highways, for that matter. Find out what they don’t know.
  3. Incorporate Questions and Iterate. If you’re doing the training, you have to assume 100% responsibility for the outcome. You can’t get frustrated if people “don’t get it,” because it’s all on you. If someone asks you a question that seems obvious, remember to leave the frustrated sighs at home and incorporate the answer to that question into your instructions. Keep doing that until no one has any questions more advanced than “how do you breathe?” Remember, if the only people who were going to read these instructions were geniuses who already knew how to do it, you wouldn’t need to write them in the first place.

Good luck, and happy repeatable-izing.

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