Mastermind groups are very popular, but they may not be the most cost-effective way to learn. This article breaks down their value components and alternatives.
This post is going to frustrate a lot of my peers. It’s also going to save you and your peers a lot of money. Mastermind groups are fantastic, but they can also be extremely overpriced. I’ll show you how they work, and how to replicate it without the cost.
For many years I was a top ranked competitive ballroom dancer. In addition to my tail suit, latin pants, multiple pairs of shoes, and other accouterments, I also spent quite a lot of money on dance lessons. Our instructors were seasoned professionals, many of whom had top rankings on the professional circuit during their younger days.
But there were other instructors in the studio, not all of whom had a dance background. Some were newbies. They literally started dancing a few months prior to the people they taught, and yet their hourly instruction rate (what people paid the studio, not necessarily what the instructor took home) was only marginally less than many of the serious professionals. I and other competitors at my level were stronger dancers. So why were these relatively inexperienced instructors teaching at the studio where we trained? Was this a scam?
We don’t always need the top people in the field to teach us.
Not at all. These guys were worth every penny. While my teammates and I were striving to be the best and needed the top coaches, that wasn’t the goal of most people in the studio. Many were wedding couples who needed a routine for their wedding dance. Some dance students just did this for fun but weren’t looking to be a serious competitor. Quite a few were recent divorcees (there’s a whole other discussion as to what brought them, but it wasn’t to become a top dancer). Others tried the group classes and then wanted to get a little better and needed one on one coaching. They didn’t need world class coaches much the same way that if I wanted to get better at cooking, I could take a local cooking class instead of spending years at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. Heck, at my level I could probably get a friend who is halfway decent at cooking to teach me some basics.
The point is, we don’t always need the top people in the field to teach us. Even if we do need top coaches, those who are best at doing aren’t always the best at teaching. For example, top research universities are notorious for having brilliant professors hired for their research, who turn out to be terrible teachers.
Open-source software takes a similar approach. Linus’ Law states, “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” If you write a paper, there may be some typo or mistake that you miss no matter how often you read it. A friend can look at it and immediately spot the mistake simply because she brings a different pair of eyes. In open-source software, the idea is that there are enough eyes that people will spot the problems or see areas for improvement.
This is the basis of the mastermind class. Instead of one-on-one coaching, where all value comes from the coach, it’s a group glass where you get value from each other. It’s in the discussion, the access to different thoughts and viewpoints, that you gain most of the value, not simply from the coach but from your peers. Someone else in the group may have faced a similar challenge, or picked up an idea, framework, or other tool that can now be shared with you. Presumably, the coach leading the discussion is such an expert that she or he can direct the conversation to be optimized for learning, but the coach is not primarily providing the value in the discussion.
Most of the value comes from the peers, not the coach.
Herein lies the key question, what are you paying for with a mastermind group? Most of the value comes from the peers, not the coach. However, the coach provides two key things to unlock that value. First, the coach creates the overall structure and guidance through it. Second, the quality of the group matters greatly; six people off the street may not be who you need, but six curated people who complement each other with their backgrounds and capabilities can be very impactful. I don’t mean to suggest that people who organize and run masterminds provide no value. The question is: how much value are they providing compared to the cost?
Alternatively: can you replicate that value? I’m a member of certain forums and groups on social media and elsewhere on the internet. It’s very much you-get-what-you-pay-for. The barrier to entry is low and the quality of advice–if you even get a response to a question–is low. I’m also a member of some more elite communities like the NY CTO Club. It has a lot of senior people who help each other out. Even though there’s no cost to join, we don't just let in anyone. This keeps the signal to noise ratio, and the level of trust, high. (I describe this further in Why Private Groups Are Better for Growth.) We don’t need an expensive mastermind coach since we have a high-quality group of people and can self-direct.
Not everyone has access to such a group. Even if you do, the group may not meet all your needs. Mastermind groups are valuable. However before joining one, ask yourself what exactly you’re paying for and if it’s worth it, or if you can find an alternative, possibly more cost-effective way to get that value. Not everyone wants to become a ballroom champion, only those who do need the top ballroom coaches and training.
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