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Curse of Knowledge: How to Be an Approachable Genius

It took “great talent or skill to conceal one’s talent or skill,” the French moralist François VI, Duc de La Rochefoucauld once noted. As soon as we’ve reached a certain level of mastery, say in playing chess, it’s hard to act as if we knew little about the game of kings. That’s partly because it’s difficult to imagine what it was like when we were still steeped in ignorance. Even if that was just five minutes ago. Known as the Curse of Knowledge, this phenomenon speaks to the tragic burden mastery can be.

What Is the Curse of Knowledge?

The Curse of Knowledge is a cognitive bias that arises from having a greater understanding of a particular topic. It’s a phenomenon whereby those who possess more knowledge about a given subject find it difficult to relate to those with less familiarity. This can lead to misunderstandings, miscommunication, and even conflict.

The concept goes back to a 1989 economics paper by Colin Camerer, George Loewenstein and Martin Weber. It has since been applied more broadly and I’m sure you’ve experienced it in one way or another. Think of something you’ve learned recently, something as mundane as basic chess moves. Once acquired, your knowledge has cursed you so to speak. The better you get the harder it is to imagine what not knowing basic chess was like.

This curse can affect any type of relationship, from personal to professional, and can have far-reaching consequences. It’s particularly fateful if it affects those whose job it is to impart their knowledge to others. Imagine a math genius turned school teacher who’s forgotten what it was like not to understand basic algebra. Or a highly capable risk analyst who has a hard time enduring journalists failing basic probability.

Consequences of the Curse of Knowledge

The consequences are not far to seek. Those with greater knowledge may be so focused on the details of the topic that they’re unable to explain the basics in a way that is accessible to those with less knowledge. At its core, the Curse of Knowledge is rooted in the inability of the knowledgeable to relate to those with less understanding.

Especially masters in their field possess something akin to unconscious competence. Their expertise has become intuitive. They don’t think anymore. They just do. And it works. The downside of this level of mastery is the inability to teach others to do the same. This renders even the most skilled expert an ineffective teacher. As a result, the more knowledgeable individual may come off as condescending or patronizing, even if that is not their intention.

This can lead to a breakdown in communication, resulting in frustration and confusion. The result is often a lack of trust, as the less knowledgeable party may feel that they’re being spoken down to or not taken seriously. In some cases, the Curse of Knowledge can even lead to resentment or animosity between the parties. The math teacher gets more and more frustrated with her students. The risk analyst lashes out on Twitter.

You may have experienced the damaging impact of the Curse of Knowledge in the workplace. For example, in a team setting, it can lead to a breakdown in communication and collaboration. This can lead to a lack of progress and inefficient decision-making. Additionally, the fateful curse can cause feelings of alienation among those with less knowledge, leading to feelings of exclusion and low morale.

How to Avert the Curse of Knowledge?

Sounds gloomy, doesn’t it? The good news is that the Curse of Knowledge is preventable. Those who know more can take steps to make sure that their conversations with others remain clear and accessible. This includes avoiding jargon and being open to answering questions.

Bridging the Gap

Those with greater knowledge can take steps to help bridge the gap to those with less knowledge. This can include offering resources and encouraging the ignorant to ask questions. Avoiding labelling the less knowledgeable ignorant helps, too. Additionally, those with greater knowledge can use their experience to mentor their peers and colleagues and help them develop their understanding. Learning to walk a mile in the shoes of the not-yet-cursed becomes a crucial meta-skill.

In this regard, former CIA covert officer Andrew Bustamante makes the fascinating distinction between perception and perspective. The idea is to “get out of your own perception and into someone else’s perspective”. To make a conscious effort to picture what their life is like with all its emotions and problems. This gives us a better chance of knowing where the person we’re trying to impart knowledge to is coming from.

The Feynman Technique

But it’s also how we acquire new knowledge that can play a role in averting the Curse of Knowledge. Richard Feynman is widely considered one of history’s greatest and most influential theoretical physicists. But he was also intellectually humble. He knew how to communicate to laymen in a non-patronising way. One of the keys to his success and attitude seems to have been the so-called Feynman Technique.

The Feynman Technique is a method that promotes learning through teaching and simplicity. It starts with a blank sheet of paper. As we study a new subject, we write down anything we learn. Next, we attempt to teach what we’ve learned to someone less knowledgeable. The idea is to fill the knowledge gaps our teaching exercise and student questions reveal to us. All while we make further attempts at explaining what we’ve learned in the simplest terms possible.

Feynman’s way of learning not only prompts us to understand instead of memorise. Relating to layman also becomes part of the process of acquiring new knowledge. It continuously forces us out of our bubble of expertise. To see the world through beginners’ eyes and communicate ideas accordingly. And if you want to take the method to the next level and think even more like a teacher, check out my essay about the Feynman Technique 2.0.

Purple Belt Living

Finally, let’s consider the Curse of Knowledge from the perspective of a beginner. What can they do to avoid a “cursed” teacher? According to writer Rob Henderson, the answer is Purple Belt Living. In martial arts such as Brazilian jiu-jitsu, you start out as a white belt. As you advance you reach the blue belt and the intermediate purple belt. Keep progressing and you’ll eventually attain your black belt.

As Henderson notes, our natural inclination is to look to black belt types for guidance. Though, oftentimes they were too far “removed from these early experiences and what they had to do to reach that position”. What’s more, people at the top of their game have the ability to countersignal. This means they can bend or even break some rules and get away with it. Just consider the difference between a student being late for class versus the instructor.

This is why in martial arts and life, a good strategy to avoid the Curse of Knowledge is to look at “purple belts”, that is people halfway to mastery, for guidance. They’re advanced enough to serve as a role model. But not so advanced that they’re out of touch with the challenges a beginner faces.

Closing Thoughts

The Curse of Knowledge is an important concept to be aware of, as it can lead to misunderstandings and, in some cases, conflict. Fortunately, it’s a phenomenon that can be avoided by taking the necessary steps to ensure that conversations remain clear and accessible.

It’s possible to bridge the gap between those with greater knowledge and those who know less from both directions. This requires a combination of intellectual humility and empathy. Once we’ve mastered this level of approachability, there’s no need to conceal our talent or skill.