The Trick to Teaching Old Dogs

by Jim Whitt

Who said you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? I wanted to know so I did an internet search to find out and guess what? No one is credited with coining that age-old axiom. I don’t think anybody wants to take credit because it can be proven that dogs, hogs, horses and humans — of any age can indeed be taught new tricks.

Take my dentist for example, who is in the process of changing his business model. He decided to partner with another dentist who possesses skill sets he doesn’t. My dentist doesn’t do implants or surgery but his new partner does. In the past he has referred that business to another practice. By partnering they are making a bigger pie that enables them to be more successful than if they continued solo practices. My dentist is 74 years-old but he’s still learning new tricks.

I recently had the opportunity to tour Denver Seminary with John Teeter, one of their graduates. As John showed me the facilities he told me how much he enjoyed his experience there. He beamed as he pointed out the desk in the library where he studied. He introduced me to faculty members who shared their knowledge with him.

I’ve had the opportunity to work with John in my role as a consultant to Teeter Irrigation where he is Director of Operations. He actively seeks my advice and unlike many people I’ve worked with, he actually puts that advice to work. When John was a youngster he barely cracked a book. Today, he is a voracious reader. The learning light bulb came on, he told me, when he went to graduate school. John commuted to Denver from Johnson, Kansas to earn his degree at the age of 35, traveling 96,000 miles in the process.

There is a difference between teaching and learning. Teaching can be defined as: “To cause or help (a person or animal) to learn how to do something by giving lessons, showing how it is done, etc.” Learning on the other hand, can be defined as: “The activity or process of gaining knowledge or skill by studying, practicing, being taught, or experiencing something: the activity of someone who learns.”

I‘ve discovered a fundamental truth in my work as a consultant — everyone has to reach the right conclusions on their own and in their own time.  You can’t teach anyone anything until they are ready to learn. Age has little to do with learning. Desire has everything to do with learning. Regardless of age, those who have a desire to learn are easily taught.

I recently met with a business owner who is about my age who admitted he struggles with new technology. He realizes that the technology he struggles with is essential to his success. Understanding that he’s no techno-whiz he’s decided the solution is to hire people who are comfortable with new technology. While many of my generation like to complain about the younger generation, I have a friend who seeks out millennials to work in his business because they love new technology. In both cases these old dogs have learned new tricks. Their trick is to do what they do best and hire young dogs to do the rest.

I don’t like to think of myself as an old dog but I’ve come to the conclusion that I can’t do everything that I used to do. Like most entrepreneurs I had to wear a lot of hats to build my business. I’ve learned a lot of what I used to do can be done a lot better by somebody else. Like my dentist, I’m partnering with others — and it’s usually young dogs — who have skill sets I don’t possess.

I’ve discovered if I hang out with the young dogs I can learn a lot from the pups. And the smart ones discover they can learn a few tricks from an old dog like me. The truth is you can teach any dog new tricks — regardless of how old that dog might be. The trick is finding a dog that wants to learn.

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