The Curse of Knowledge

There’s a point in our lives and careers when our knowledge and our experience can become counter-productive (if we let them). It mostly shows up in how we communicate but also in how we learn and grow.

  • We can often be so close to something that we fail to see it in the way that someone without our knowledge does.
  • We can “assume” someone else understands it, because we do, but they are actually completely lost.
  • We can use wording and terminology that makes since to those within our circle but that has absolutely no meaning to the rest of the world around us. (Which is fine if you are trying to keep a closed system but presents a big problem if you’re not).
  • We can trick ourselves into thinking that what worked last year will work this year but in reality we might just be blind to the shift that needs to occur… since we’re stuck in what was instead of what is and what’s to come.
  • On a broader sense… If we think we already know then we’re closing ourselves off to the possibilities of what could be.

Plain and simple, if we aren’t careful we can let what we know become what we knew and one day wake up to a world that has passed us by.

More specifically to the rest of this article, The Curse of Knowledge greatly impacts our ability to communicate and connect with others in a way that makes an impact.

The worst part is that it’s a sneaky curse. No one sets out to intentionally let their knowledge become their barrier… but it happens to those who aren’t constantly aware of its presence and proactively trying to neutralize it.

In the book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Thrive and Others Die, authors Dan and Chip Heath explain The Curse of Knowledge quite well as it relates to ideas and how they spread. Below is an excerpt from an article Dan and Chip did with Guy Kawasaki soon after Made to Stick came out.

People tend to think that having a great idea is enough, and they think the communication part will come naturally. We are in deep denial about the difficulty of getting a thought out of our own heads and into the heads of others. It’s just not true that, “If you think it, it will stick.”

And that brings us to the villain of our book: The Curse of Knowledge. Lots of research in economics and psychology shows that when we know something, it becomes hard for us to imagine not knowing it. As a result, we become lousy communicators. Think of a lawyer who can’t give you a straight, comprehensible answer to a legal question. His vast knowledge and experience renders him unable to fathom how little you know. So when he talks to you, he talks in abstractions that you can’t follow. And we’re all like the lawyer in our own domain of expertise.

Here’s the great cruelty of the Curse of Knowledge: The better we get at generating great ideas—new insights and novel solutions—in our field of expertise, the more unnatural it becomes for us to communicate those ideas clearly. That’s why knowledge is a curse. But notice we said “unnatural,” not “impossible.” Experts just need to devote a little time to applying the basic principles of stickiness.

JFK dodged the Curse [with “put a man on the moon in a decade”]. If he’d been a modern-day politician or CEO, he’d probably have said, “Our mission is to become the international leader in the space industry, using our capacity for technological innovation to build a bridge towards humanity’s future.” That might have set a moon walk back fifteen years.

So what does this mean for us? In a practical sense it means that we must first recognize the curse exists and that it exists in all of us.

We must also recognize our need to be “right” all the time and our desire to justify ourselves by what we know… then we need to let that go. Honestly, that is just pride and ego most of the time anyways. Sure, your experience is important and it should be what guides you but you can’t let that knowledge become the curse that blocks you from seeing what others might see.

Empathy, Anticipation and Simplicity are a few of the antidotes to The Curse of Knowledge. When we consider how others feel and anticipate how they might interact, based on their level of understanding, we’re on track. When we combine that with simplifying a message to speak to the core of what we’re trying to communicate, removing the fat, then we create a dynamic opportunity to connect. It’s easier said than done but attainable for those who choose to pursue it.

What about you? Have you experienced The Curse of Knowledge? What have you done or are you going to do to neutralize it? Share your thoughts here.