The Curse of Knowledge

TIL the phrase "The Curse of Knowledge" from a 10-year old article by that name. The article focuses on leadership, discussing how executives tend to summarize years of knowledge and experience into vague goals like "achieve customer delight" and "unlock value". While they may understand intuitively what concrete steps will achieve those goals, most employees will have no idea what role they play in getting from point A to point B.

Taking a step back though, this isn't just a challenge for execs, but for anyone who learns something new or obtains a new skill - especially if that knowledge or skill is advanced enough that it's not easily grasped by other people. The part of the article that jumped out at me:

The problem is that once we know something — say, the melody of a song — we find it hard to imagine not knowing it. Our knowledge has "cursed" us. We have difficulty sharing it with others, because we can't readily re-create their state of mind.

One example, for me, was learning what an "atom" is in Erlang... it makes no sense when you don't know it, but then eventually you learn when and why to use them and have a "eureka" moment. It'd be tough for me to explain that to someone brand new to the language though. So how do we work around that?

Do, Then Understand

I've watched my kids learn by doing. That's our natural state. First we learn how, then we learn why. So one way to spread knowledge is to show first and explain later. We want to get to point D. In order to do that, here are concrete steps A, B and C. Let's do these first, and see how each one gets us closer to the goal we thought was unobtainable.

Draw Comparisons

I work with someone who happens to like making comparisons of whatever topic is being discussed to something more familiar, and that's usually very helpful. It immediately creates this mental image of one process (something in real life) happening, and I can connect that to how some other process (in coding) should happen. That's another way to spread knowledge - pick something the other person does understand and connect the two.

Write Down Your Thoughts as You Learn

This is something I hadn't considered before, but I might now that I'm trying to blog more often. If you're learning something new and experiencing difficulties or becoming frustrated, write that stuff down while it's on your mind. Months down the line when it's more familiar to you, but you meet someone else going through the same thing, you'll be better able to recount how you felt and even how you managed to overcome it. It might get around the "we can't readily re-create their state of mind" point made in the article.


This is post #10 in my personal challenge to do #30DaysOfBlogging. I'm hoping this short-term challenge will help me become more comfortable with blogging in general. I expect some hits and misses; hopefully something here inspires or helps you.


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