The Curse of Knowledge is Worse Than You Think

Adam Bertram

Adam Bertram

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When you show someone how to solve a problem, acquire a new skill or accomplish a task, you’re teaching. You’re teaching that random Internet blog reader how to create a database, a coworker casually stopping by with that coding problem she can’t figure out or even your son how to ride a bike.

You have the knowledge and they want you to share that. You’re the teacher and they are the student. Each party has a certain expected level of knowledge about the task at hand. You, the teacher, has the solution or skill up in your head and it’s up to you to show that to the student.

If you’re a beginner yourself, it’s easy to relate to the student. It wasn’t too long ago that the knowledge entered your brain. It’s top of mind. It’s fresh and easily pulled out. Fast forward many months or even years and life experiences later, that feeling of not knowing fades.

You’ve been cursed! You’ve been cursed with knowledge.

Empathy Only Goes So Far

How much do you remember learning how to ride a bike? As you were learning, you probably skinned a few knees, fell in a few bushes and ultimately hated the process. At first. Once you pedaled for 10 feet on your own, you had it though! There you were eventually cruising down the street to your friend’s house.

You might recall the experience you had at Timmy’s house once you got there but you were too busy cursing inside your own head to remember what it was like to not ride a bike. Too much time has passed and too much wisdom has been bestowed upon you since then.

Try to teach a child how to ride a bike now. Chances are you’re going to grab the seat, push a little bit and say, “Stay up!”. That’s it. You might give some tips about steering and leaning because that’s what makes sense. But can you put yourself in that child’s shoes and feel what it’s like to be in their position?

Chances are, you’re trying desperately to be empathetic but it’s impossible for you to truly see through that child’s eyes. You can be Mother Theresa being the most patient teacher ever but you’re never going to truly understand how that child feels.

Your Brain Automates Subconsciously

If you’re reading this blog, I bet you love automation. You hate doing the same thing twice. Did you know your brain feels the same way? Think of all the tasks you’ve learned in your lifetime. Take your morning routine, for example. Have you ever forgot if you washed your hair or not right after you got done? I have! I do it all the time. It’s not because I have a bad memory, per se. It’s because my brain is on auto-pilot.

We’ve learned tens of thousands of skills and tasks in our lifetimes. I sure don’t want to imagine a world when I have to learn all of those tasks over again. Learning required hard, mental effort. Nowadays, I can drive my daughter to school with my eyes closed or…watch Netflix on my phone on the way home. Kidding! Or am I?

Your brain automates all of those routine tasks. The brain tucks away all of those steps you learned years ago on how to ride a bike and has automated them. The brain shoves all of those tasks that required true cognition at one time, packaged them up and built a script to run later.

If you’ve essentially scripted so many tasks, imagine how hard it’s going to be to feel the pain and struggle of spending so many mental cycles on learning a new task or skill.

If you’re a trainer or teacher, your brain is out for you and no one else. Your brain doesn’t care if you want to teach Tommy how to ride his new Huffy. Let Timmy skin some knees and let his own brain take care of. Your brain is an asshole.

Logic is Our First Choice

When you attempt to convey your knowledge to someone else, you’re probably being completely logical. You know Timmy is going to fall on his face if he leans too far to the left so you say, “Lean to the right when you feel yourself leaning to the left”. The logical part of your brain knows when you apply pressure to the pedals, the bike moves forward so you tell Timmy that. But Timmy still falls on his face sometimes.

It’s not Timmy’s fault he looks as coordinated as an elephant on stilts. Don’t blame him. You probably had the same luck.

No amount of screaming and yelling at Timmy is going to keep him upright.

Don’t get logical, just forget…for a little bit.

Forget Everything You Know

The next time you try to explain a topic, erase everything you know. Consciously, put yourself in that same position you were when you first learned.

  • Were you at another job?
  • What’s the latest tech you had learned at the time?
  • How old were you?

Reminisce. Take a trip back in time when you, yourself, were a newbie. You would not believe how differently you will approach the teaching process. You’ll tend to use more “teaching by feeling” rather than “teaching by logic” which your student will greatly appreciate.


It’s hard to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Really hard. The skill of getting in the learner’s frame of mind is a rare skill indeed. This skill alone is what separates the “training by repetition” types from the “leading by example” types.

Have empathy. Think like a beginner. Build visions of newbness in your head. Break the curse today.

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