The Curse of Knowledge

Made to Stick has a great concept called the Curse of Knowledge. (Highly recommended reading)  Here is a summary of the curse:

Imagine a song (not Happy Birthday) in your head. A common familiar song. Then ask someone listen while you tap out the song on your desk. See if they can understand it. They almost always fail. Why? They can’t hear the music in your head, they just hear morse code from your desk. People teach in the same way. They know all the details of the subject matter as they know the music in their heads. However, the audience doesn’t know about all that history. They just hear you speaking. Teaching fails when you overestimate your audiences ears.

Symptoms of the Curse include:

  • OMAGOD Overuse of Meaningless Acronyms Given to Odd Details.
  • Florkiness – Overuse of domain specific or internal names that new people do not understand.
  • MetaData – Overuse of vague, meaningless terms
  • Smurfing – Using a single term to mean multiple things.
  • The Weeds – Inability to zoom up and see the forest first.  They jump right into the weeds.
  • Dicken’s Syndrome – Charles Dickens got paid by the word.  (Close enough)  Long prose is an awful way to explain something.
  • RTFMRead The F**king Manual.  Or Wiki.  When people can’t take the time to explain they use this cop-out.

There are tools to combat the Curse.  Here is a short list:

  • Simplify – Use common terminology and start with the highest level basic concepts.
  • Create a baseline of language – Establish general nouns and verbs of what is going on.
  • Use Analogies.  Like a car or a plane.
  • Interact and confirm learning. Make sure they are with you.  Ask them to explain it back to you in their own words.  Most people nod their heads when asked if they understand because they don’t want to be embarrassed.  This is human psychology.  Don’t assume people understand anything.
  • Draw a picture.  Like this:

The Curse of Knowledge is bad and has these effects:

  • Slows new employee indoctrination
  • Makes a company less productive and profitable because people don’t understand the details
  • Reduces recruiting effectiveness because you can’t explain things
  • Makes Sales harder because you can’t explain things
  • Hurts the ability of leaders to lead because people make faulty assumptions

Don’t underestimate this blight on humanity.  Fight it in your organization.  Do your best to learn to teach better.  Teaching is part of learning.  I hope this post will help some of you teach better.


7 responses to “The Curse of Knowledge”

  1. Atanasio Segovia Avatar
    Atanasio Segovia

    Awesome post!

    I would add “use a story” to the tools to combat the curse. Everyone likes stories 🙂

  2. Your wife Avatar

    “Blight on humanity?” Overstating a wee bit maybe? However, nice post.

  3. Great symptoms list, Glen. “Smurfing” made me laugh.

    I think there is a benefit of a little florkiness, as long as you take the audience along. If they buy into the domain-specific terms, it can give the audience a feeling of being in on the “secret”. I think the trick is to define important terms, move slowly, and ensure the audience buys into the definitions. And never overuse florkiness.


    1. Glen Lipka Avatar
      Glen Lipka

      Thanks. 🙂 Overuse is often the key. Any one of these is fine in small doses. But when it’s pervasive, trouble begins

  4. Great post.

    I once remarked on my teachers class saying that some people usually explain a concept and then say, ‘Did you understand?’ I said that it’s not possible to know if someone really understood, since the concept is in the teacher’s head, the receiver would have to read the giver’s mind to know if he understood.

    Then I completed that worst than it is when someone replies, ‘Yes, I understood!’ How does he knows he understood? Do people actually read other’s mind and I didn’t know that?

    I really liked this post. Purely logical and true.

  5. Enjoyed your post tremendously. Totally agree about teaching being part of learning. And, everything we know, we learned. Learning AND teaching ARE important. You might like my own take on it from a couple of weeks ago:

  6. I love the OMAGOD one. I was crying laughing because where I work, everyone suffers from Acronymitis.

Whatya think?