7 minute read

I'm not talking about a polygon with triangular faces or a marketing scam to rope your friends in. I'm talking about The Pyramid Method, laid out by Cal Newport on his blog, Study Hacks. Newport tells the story of a friend of a friend's journey to becoming a professional hip-hop artist. The key, he claims, was that the friend, Chris, followed the Pyramid Method -- named for the hip-hop club, The Pyramid, where he honed his craft. Chris went back to the Pyramid again and again and as he worked his way to becoming the undisputed champ of their weekly rap battles, he polished all the different facets of his hip-hop game. This is the essence of Newport's method. From the post where he tells Chris's story:

The Pyramid Method

The difference between the first two years after Chris’s graduation, and the two years that followed our fateful phone call, couldn’t be starker. The key to his transformation was two-fold: (1) Chris focused his attention on improving his standing at a single venue; and (2) this venue provided clear metrics, so he could track his progress and use this to tweak his practice to be as effective as possible.

I call this general technique the Pyramid Method. I claim that it’s a powerful approach for anyone looking to transform an interest or natural talent into an expertise that cannot be ignored. Regardless of the pursuit in question, if you want to take it someplace serious, follow Chris’s example. This means:

  1. Pick a single relevant venue to join at the entry level and work to increase your standing.
  2. Make sure the venue offers clear metrics on your progress; use these metrics to guide your efforts to get better.
  3. Forget all the other bullshit advice and mini-strategies people offer for getting ahead in your pursuit. If you can’t master this one venue, then you don’t yet deserve the world’s respect.
  4. Put your head down, and get it done.



As I read Newport's story, it dawned on me that the single biggest problem most teachers have getting better at teaching and building a student following along the way was that they were missing their Pyramid -- the one venue they could go again and again and get reliable feedback on their skills. I like Newport's tone and candid admission that there really isn't any glory in the Pyramid phase of honing your skills, but that's the big fat open secret to getting really good: you have to be there, doing it, all the time and adapting to feedback as you go. That's too boring for most people who think they deserve students because they've been at their hobby for a long time. I'm not going to go back down that road. I've explored the psychological flip you need to make as a successful teacher here, here, and here. Instead, let's talk about building a Pyramid.

Brookline Tai Chi as The Pyramid


If we break down the four parts of Newport's model, we can actually see how BTC is the perfect place for teachers to hone their skills.

1. Pick a single relevant venue to join at the entry level and work to increase your standing.

For a budding tai chi teacher in our system, this is the most relevant venue in the country. Most of my teaching peers have to teacher introductory sessions to a handful of students over and over again, because they don't have a venue with the kind of structure we do at BTC. For the new teacher, there is a clear entry-level opportunity and as they build a following, there is a natural progression for them to go through, teaching more advanced material.

2. Make sure the venue offers clear metrics on your progress; use these metrics to guide your efforts to get better.

There is one teaching metric at BTC that matters: retention. Again, with a small sample size, it's easy to have a half-dozen excuses for why this student or that student didn't come back. Once you start seeing 20 new students every 7 weeks, though, you see trends (these excuses continually add "old students" back into the mix too, by the way). If you're perceptive, and you get some outside feedback on your teaching, you can begin to tweak how you run classes and how you related to students so that they are engaged, happy, and interested in studying with you on an ongoing basis.

3. Forget all the other bullshit advice and mini-strategies people offer for getting ahead in your pursuit. If you can’t master this one venue, then you don’t yet deserve the world’s respect.

I love this piece of advice in the Pyramid Method. The classic example I've experienced with BTC is outreach teaching. We get a steady stream of calls from groups, classes, and health fairs, stuff like that, looking for instructors to come teach to a group. For a while I didn't turn these down, at first for the wrong reason. See, at first, I thought being responsive to these requests would be a great way to get new business. It doesn't work that way. Don't get me wrong, I really enjoy talking to the student who came from that one conference, two years later, but this isn't the way to drive new business.....in one sense.

See, this is an area where the Pyramid Method drove me outside of my "single venue". I was getting some experience taking beginners through our six month introductory course cycle and I felt comfortable with the seven week format of a single course, but I didn't really know how to teach a good introductory hour. What happens in the first hour that makes people excited to continue with the practice? Even though I taught that intro hour 4 times every 7 weeks, I decided to look outside of BTC for a way to practice what I call "teaching cold". Teaching cold is all about teaching the intro to people who are less convinced that tai chi was right for them than the people who had made an effort to come into the school. That's why, for a while, I continued to say yes to every outreach teaching request we got.

Put another way, I know a small percentage of people will embrace a ten year practice arc and feel a deep connection to their personal journey. You can't teach to these people and survive professionally. You have to feed their journey differently, but it's not the main driver of successful commercial teaching. A much larger percentage of people will feel good about themselves, make a social connection, and enjoy a recreational version of the practice. These are the folks that have to be convinced in one hour and these are the folks the school is built to serve initially. So, I had to go out and find them.

There are versions of this experiment that you can perform at every stage of the learning process. Changing the format, the audience, and the context helps you build different skills, but I can always plug them back into better teaching at BTC.

4. Put your head down, and get it done.

I love that he sums up in one line what is typically a 3-5 year journey for most beginning instructors. Most people get over the initial excitement of being asked to teach in 6-8 months. It's hard for them to comprehend that coming to the end of September-August school year is the first lap around the track. What I always find interesting, though, is that these same people have yoked themselves with a personal practice that unfolds on that longer timeline. Most of them are excellent practitioners who must have that long view of their own personal development. Why is it that developing commercial teaching skills look so different to them? I can tell you that the ability to change gears with students -- delivering the one hour class then turning around and diving in with ten year veteran students -- has given me the ability to do the same in my practice. I just wish more people would see cultivating their teaching practice as an extension of their personal practice.