The Paradox of Background Knowledge

By Deane Barker on January 1, 2010

I really loved this post from Rajesh Setty about why smart people don’t share their knowledge. He examined why some of the smartest people are so less likely to share their knowledge than other people.

His conclusion:

Smart people want to give their best and as they learn more, they learn that they need to learn a lot more before they start sharing. They learn some more and they learn they need to learn some more. What they forget is that most of the expertise that they already have is either becoming “obvious” to them or better yet, going into their “background thinking.”

I’ve been turning this over and over in my head for a couple days, and find myself identifying with it more and more. For some people, background knowledge becomes something like a paradox – the more you learn, the less you feel you know.  What you already know fades in the background, and you always feel like you’re learning from scratch, even though you’re getting smarter and smarter every day.

We hired a guy a couple months ago – let’s call him Trevor.  Trevor was a career salesman, with a background in supply-chain management software.  We brought him in just to help us sell Episerver licenses.

However, after about a month, it was obvious that it wasn’t working out.  Trevor knew it too. When he got an offer for another job he had applied for sometime in the past, he took it. What I realized through that episode was that it takes a lot of experience with content management to sell content management.  After about week with Trevor, it slowly dawned on my how much of a hill we had to climb.

I somehow had it in my head that Trevor would just know all the core stuff about content management that, well, everyone knows. But everyone doesn’t know it.  Between Joe and I, we’ve internalized enough stuff about content management that we tend to assume a ton of knowledge.

In an attempt to bring Trevor up to speed, I started putting together a presentation called “The Case for Content Management."  While doing this, I kept having to check myself on every point – invariably I had assumed something, and I had to back up further and further to the absolute basics.  The presentation grew and grew and the enormity of what I was trying to do began to come into view.

It was...demoralizing. So, back to what Rejesh came up with, I think a lot of it depends on your attitude about new knowledge.  Does it make you feel smarter or stupider?

  • Some people learn something and become convinced of their own awesomeness, thus they are more likely to share.

  • Others learn something new and it instantly makes them realize how much they didn’t know in the first place, and how much more they have to learn.  These people are probably less likely to share.

Put another way, do you look forward or back?  Do you like to contemplate how much you already know, or how much you don’t know and have yet to learn?  Do you like to feel smart or stupid?

Personally, I love to feel stupid.  I’m pretty good at it too.

Comments (3)

yachris says:

Your bullet points, “Some people learn something and become convinced of their own awesomeness...” and “Others learn something new and it instantly makes them realize how much they didn’t know...” set up a false dichotomy. When I learn new stuff, it doesn’t change how I feel about my awesomeness, but if the information itself is awesome, I’ll share it. And I don’t know if learning something new has ever made me recognize how much I didn’t know.

Now when I go to teach someone something, like your “Case for CM” example, OH YEAH, I realize how much I know, and how long it will take to cover it. That can be daunting.

Mark says:

I guess it all depends on what you call smart. There are some that are book smart and have no common sense so they can’t teach nor can they help anyone else because they just can’t.

Then there are the smart people who don’t have the “piece of paper” but can help anyone because they struggled to learn so when it comes to teaching others, they had to find different ways to learn, so passing that on is easy.

For me, i.e. someone in education, the “smartest” (people who learn things the fastest right from a book) typically make the worst teachers. It was easy for them so they don’t understand why it’s not easy for everyone. When people like me who need to use “it”, break it a few times before we get all of “it” typically have the ability to tone it down so we can teach.

My $0.02 keep the change.

Kingsley, Supply Chain Software Guy says:

I’ve found intelligence is not something gained through book-smarts alone, but rather a combination of both life experience and learned knowledge. You can’t rely on just one or the other, otherwise you end up being far less intelligent than you might think.