The Muselet #31: Putting the U in Education

The term “masterclass” never really meant anything to me. To me, it simply sounded like a hyperbolical term for “an overpriced course.” However, that has changed. I think I get it now.

Lately, I’ve been quite into Malcolm Gladwell. Over the years I’ve read a few of his books, including The Tipping PointTalking to StrangersOutliersBlink. Ok, so maybe I read most of his books. Then, a few weeks ago I discovered he has a podcast called Revisionist History. A long binge listen session started. Every Revisionist History episode, about half an hour each, is essentially a mini-Gladwell book in itself.

Some people criticize Gladwell’s what — the content. Sometimes he favors being interesting over being completely accurate. He even admits this himself. That’s something to consider before making life decisions based on his writing. Nevertheless, what I appreciate in Gladwell’s content is that he challenges assumptions. I like that. Also, we share a love for grand unifying theories. 

Few, however, dispute Gladwell’s masterful how. Whether you read his books, New Yorker articles, or listen to these Revisionist History episodes: you’re pulled in, move to the edge of your seat, and remain there until the end.

As I listened to episode after episode of Revisionist History, I wasn’t just intrigued by the content itself, but also started to decode out how he does it. I started to figure out the structure of his stories.

Listening to story after story, half hour after half hour, I started to pattern match the structure. I started to learn how to tell stories like Malcolm Gladwell.

And then I remembered about Over time I’ve ended up on this site, but never really looked at it too closely. It seemed rather expensive. But… wasn’t there a masterclass by Malcolm Gladwell there? Yes, there is: Malcolm Gladwell Teaches Writing. That’s a potentially nice shortcut. Alright, I had already committed so much time to him, a bit more wouldn’t hurt. I subscribed to MasterClass.

I watched Malcolm Gladwell’s masterclass. Excellent. Then I watched David Sedaris Teaches Storytelling and Humor. Great. I won’t go on a tangent here, but David Sedaris is amazing, if you’re not familiar with him — read Understanding Owls — you won’t regret it. Then I watched Bob Iger Teaches Business Strategy and Leadership. Not too shabby. Then, Aaron Sorkin Teaches Screenwriting. Not because I’m interested in screenwriting, but I’m a huge Aaron Sorkin fan and probably watched about everything he screen-wrote (The West Wing, The Social Network, The Newsroom, Steve Jobs etc.).

Watching masterclass after masterclass, 5+ hours after 5+ hours, I started to pattern match the structure. I started to learn what makes masterclasses masterclasses.

My conclusions: 

  1. We need more of this type of education.

  2. The value is in the fact that unlike most generic courses, masterclasses are personal.

How is a masterclass different from a regular course?

First, these are not full 101 courses. You don’t learn the basics. Masterclasses are for people who’ve been practicing already. The masterclass focuses on the particular strengths, expertise and approach of the masterclass’s teacher. For instance, in the writing related masterclasses I took, I learned how Malcolm Gladwell writes, how David Sedaris writes. You learn how Aaron Sorkin writes and runs his writer’s room. As a result, a masterclass is much more personal than most courses you’ll find. Therefore, it would make perfect sense to take 5 masterclasses on the same topic taught by different people. Contrast that to taking a “Modern React.js” course — once you took one, taking a second won’t add much.

Second, and related, it really matters who teaches it. Hence, Masterclass. It has to come from a “master.” An authority. John Neverheardof Teaches Writing will not attract a significant audience. The audience needs to know the teacher already, and somehow want to be able to do what they do, or at least want to understand how they do it.

Third, because we know the person who teaches it, they can use their own work as case studies. Not only is this valuable in terms of learning, we also get to hear the backstory and “making of” things we admire. David Sedaris walks us through various drafts of Understanding Owls and why he made the revisions he made. Bob Iger tells us how the deal for Disney to buy Pixar came about. Nobody else would be able to do this. Just them.

Some time ago, somebody asked to give me some feedback on an article she wrote. I sent her back two things: a list of suggestions on how to improve the content, and a link to an article that I cooked up musing on the biggest issue I had with the article: “What’s Your Story?” Vintage Zef, you ask for some suggestions on your article, and get back a 629-word essay effectively saying: I don’t understand why the hell you wrote this and not some random person off the street.

You’re welcome.

I had learned this lesson five years earlier. I was about to give a talk on a conference about Docker — the hot new thing back then. I had spent many hours preparing a fairly comprehensive overview of what Docker was, why it mattered and where it was going. I walked my colleague through it a few days before the conference. “That’s nice,” he said. Yikes. “The talks that always stick with me have something personal in them. They connect the content to the person who’s telling it.”


How the hell was I going to connect a Docker talk to me? I didn’t invent Docker. I was an early adopter, but that was it. Then, a few days later I came up with a concept.

I deleted all my slides, and redid everything from scratch. There’s no recording of it, but I later turned it into an article. Given the topic, I think the result was pretty unique. For sure it would be odd if somebody else would given exactly this talk.

Ever since, I’ve been trying to do this: connect me personally with what I’m talking and writing about.

This idea also hits at the essence of what I think makes a masterclass valuable. It puts the teacher into the content. In the case of the masterclass, It puts the “U” in “EdUcation.”

In education we need more of this. We need a masterclass from Steven Sinofsky about managing a huge engineering operation at Microsoft. We need a masterclass from Rich Hickey where he talks us through designing or refactoring a significant Clojure application. We need a masterclass by Linus Torvalds about how to contribute to Linux.

But even if you’re not a “master,” or into teaching at all, the same thing applies: put yourself into your work. Put your own personality and personal experience into articles you write, emails you write, conference talks you give. Make them personal. Make me understand why you wrote this.

In other words: What’s your story?