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The Curse of Knowledge

3 minutes


The curse of knowledge

It sounds a bit conceited to say, but knowledge is sometimes a curse.  It is a curse because at times it proves difficult to pass along the knowledge in your head to somebody that is just not getting it.  

Have you ever tried to explain something you believe to be so simple, but find yourself frustrated that the other person isn’t understanding?  The more they do not understand, the more frustrated you become.  We have all been there.  But the problem is usually never with the one on the receiving end of the instruction- the problem is with the one on the giving end.

A Game

I demonstrated this point to a group of people a while back with a simple exercise.  I picked two people, had one of them think of a simple children’s song and then “clap” out the tune.  The other person’s job was to guess the song based on the pattern of claps.  

This exercise sounds very simple.  It isn’t…

The clapper began clapping to the song in his head with a look on his face that said, “This is going to be easy to guess.”  The listener just stood there with a dumbfounded look on his face.  After 30 seconds, the clapper started showing signs of frustration while the listener just stood there shaking his head.  

When the clapper finished the song and the listener failed to guess, I had him clap out the song once more.  This time, with a frustrated look and more forceful claps to add volume (almost like the listener’s problem was he couldn’t hear the clapping), the clapper began clapping again.  The listener once more failed to recognize the song.

To the clapper (the one with knowledge), he hears the song so very clearly in his head while he dutifully claps along, wondering why nobody can guess the tune.  But to the listener who can’t hear the song inside the clapper’s head, it sounds like random clapping.  

Try it out.  Find a partner right now, have them think of an easy children’s song that everybody knows and have them clap it out for you to guess.  You already know that you will not be able to guess the song but, watch the other person’s facial expressions.  Those facial expressions will start out as “playful” but will quickly move to a “how in the world are you not guessing the song- it is so simple!”  Eventually, if you keep the game going long enough, the other person will become frustrated.  

Transmitting Ideas To Others

Oftentimes, the clearer we understand a topic, the harder it is for us to teach it effectively.  The key is to find a way to explain it in an elementary way.  Albert Einstein explained advanced theories of physics using apples and watermelons.  He had a knack for taking the most complex of ideas and hitting them with a simple stick so his audience would understand them.  Steve Jobs did the same thing, only with innovative ideas rather than advanced quantum mechanical theory.  

Empathizing with your listener is a simple way to convey your instruction.  You have to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and understand their knowledge level of the subject.  I find the best way to determine this knowledge level is to ask questions or have them explain the topic to you.  Once you have determined their knowledge level, you can start effectively building it up from there.

What if you are the one not understanding?  Simple- my technique when this happens to me is saying, “Hold on a second.  I don’t understand- explain this to me like I am a five-year-old.”  This lets the other person know that I clearly do not understand and also puts him in a more elementary mode of explanation.  (Either that or he ends up thinking I have the brain capacity of a five-year-old).

The Parting Shot

The next time you have information to pass along to another person, remember the exercise above and make sure you are not just clapping to the tune in your head.  The very least you can do is hum along.


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This post was created with the help of:
An early morning stillness and a pot of Kaldi’s coffee

2 thoughts on “The Curse of Knowledge”

  • Really got me thinking. This is not so easy. There are people to whom I say one word and they know exactly what I mean. There are also people to whom I try to explain things (as if they were 5) and then they get upset because I am supposedly trying to patronize them. It’s a delicate balance to find the happy medium. It surely can be frustrating for the clapper.

    • It absolutely can be frustrating at times. It is a thin line to walk between frustration and patronization when explaining something to somebody. Especially when the person in disinterested or already frustrated themselves. I like to revert back to the “show me/tell me” idea where they explain to me what they already know. This lets me know their baseline. Once their baseline level of knowledge is known, I adjust accordingly.

      Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment!

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