The Curse of Knowledge in Practice

The Curse of Knowledge in Practice

Has it ever happened to you that someone asks you how to prepare something, and you are surprised that this person does not already know? You get a proposal to write an article and suddenly all that comes to your mind are the same obvious things, and thoughts such as, “After all, everyone already knows this; I have nothing interesting/revealing/innovative to say?” I do this very often, and I commonly encounter such a situation with customers.

I was recently asked to write answers to a few simple questions about my work. It took me less than 10 minutes to answer all of them, and I was happy to show them to a colleague of mine from the team. We do this with every article. This way we avoid unnecessary typos, incomprehensible forms, or thought abbreviations. I looked at her, and I could see on her face that she didn’t like what she was reading. More specifically, she didn’t understand. There were too many vague statements; I didn’t explain what came from where. For me, what she was talking about is, to quote the classics, “the obvious.” But it wasn’t for her, and probably not for others. During the reading, my colleague probably thought that I was caught up in the “curse of knowledge.”

Four Levels of Knowledge

When I talk to my friends, they fall into this trap, too. We just think everyone knows everything. And after all, there is the principle of the four levels of knowledge.

  1. I don’t know that I don’t know. It represents the knowledge that we have no idea exists. For us, a person in this situation could be an ideal user of our client’s solutions, who does not know that he does not know about the existence of a solution that can help him, and the task is to inform him about it through various forms of communication. Or, I don’t know if there’s another Anita in the world who works in communication on a daily basis.
  2. I know that I do not know. I know that I have some shortcomings in a given area. I can do something about it, or I can’t. For example, I know that I don’t speak Chinese, and I don’t really engage in learning it.
  3. I know that I know. That is, I am aware that I am able to do something and I can do it. For example, I know that I know the multiplication table.
  4. I don’t know that I know. And this is where the curse of knowledge begins. So, I don’t know that I can do something or know something—I just do it.

Why is something that we have been working on for so long called the “curse of knowledge” and not the “gold medal for knowledge”? Because this skill, sometimes routine, causes us to often underestimate ourselves, our achievements, and how much it cost us to gain this valuable experience. By this, we might price our services cheaper than we should.

This “curse” may also mean that we are not able to present our knowledge well enough during conferences, speeches on the radio or TV, or when writing an article because we will use generalities. As a result, we do not take advantage of these opportunities very well.

Klątwa wiedzy w praktyce

Jak sobie radzić z klątwą wiedzy?

Handwriting makes me think differently. I always start with preparing an article or creating a schema of speaking at a conference by listing things that are important in a given topic. It is not a systematic list, but rather a loose reflection, a case study that may fit, and interesting examples. Only then do I organize them and arrange them into a story. I cross out what’s unnecessary.

However, it is at that time, when I am doing such brainstorming on paper, that I notice that I have more to say about the subject than I initially thought.

I present my ideas to someone outside the environment.

The next, very important stage for me is the verification of this story. Is everything clear? Did I skip a stage that was obvious to me but is not necessarily for someone else? In turn, I try to present my point of view and make sure that the presented materials are clear, and one results from the other.

It is here that I most often catch the obvious issues for myself, and for another person, it could perhaps be full of understatements. I also notice how often it is difficult for me to explain precisely the issues that are obvious to me.

It is good to have people around you who will read the material, whom we can present our presentation to, and thus make sure that we can explain what we do in a way that is understandable to others.

I am not even able to mention how many times I have written something, happy to show it to the chosen person and already counting on a positive opinion, and… I see the consternation on their face. “I don’t understand anything here,” I hear, or “But what is this…?” As a result, I inquire, supplement and, in fact, this person draws out specifics from me. Then I hear, “And how do you do it every day?”; “How do you start?” Without analyzing too much, I just answer, and—eureka. That’s what was missing!

On the one hand, I love that “squeezing” of valuable content out of myself, because sometimes I do not realize it’s there. On the other hand, it can be really tiring.

klątwa wiedzy w praktyce

3. I ask others what elements of my work may be interesting to them.

Another issue is our perception of readers, viewers, or listeners. When we listen carefully to the questions that our interlocutors ask us during the job interview, we will see what topics are interesting to them.

Informal meetings, social outings for coffee—this is my treasure trove of ideas. I can’t count how many times my loved ones have asked me, “But what do you even make money on?” “What exactly is your job?” I once went on a trip to Kilimanjaro with friends. We have known each other for a while and have climbed many peaks together, and each expedition is a lot of conversation and confession. We go on a bus and talk to people we just met. Everyone tells me what they do—one runs a kindergarten, the other runs a factory, and finally, it is my turn. They look at me and there is a moment of silence… “I still don’t know what you really do,” I hear.

And then I go home, and I think about what I should improve in my communication so that others understand what I do in the company. If I, the person in charge of communication, am not making this clear enough, then how much work must be done by people who are more technical in explaining their projects?

Looking at these reactions, I can see my work from a completely new perspective, thus far unknown to me. I see what fascinates others in my activity and what may be suitable to show the world, even though it seems obvious to me, and I find out where I use industry vocabulary that is not understood by everyone.