Recognizing the curse of knowledge

You don’t know what you don’t know.

Case in point: I recently read an article about a farmer’s experience speaking to a group of urban moms in Chicago. These otherwise educated and well-informed women thought that seed company signs posted at fields along roadways were a statement of ownership.

In the age of genetically modified organisms, they thought the signs meant that these were corporate farms owned by corporate entities or giant seed companies.

We don’t know what we don’t know.

We make assumptions based on what we do know or what’s before us in black and white. Our brain pulls all the information stored under a related theme and, with lightning speed, constructs meaning or surmises an answer. We don’t know what we don’t know because the information just isn’t there.

The flip side of this is the curse of knowledge.

Every farmer I’ve told the seed sign anecdote to gets almost the same look on their face accompanied by a “wow,” “yikes” or “eesh.” They marvel at how someone could come to that conclusion.

But we have an edge where this issue (or anything agriculture related) is involved: knowledge.

The caveat is that possessing knowledge means that you can fall victim to its curse: if you know something, then surely everyone else does, right? The curse makes it harder for you to understand where the other person is at, therefore making it more difficult to explain things in a way that would be easily comprehensible to a novice.

Once we know something, it’s hard to unknow it. And not being able to unknow it makes it difficult to begin a dialogue at the right (and most valuable) starting point. So, how can you remember what it’s like to be a beginner to get the right information out in the right way?

  • Use stories: It’s not enough to neatly summarize the facts and stats you carry around in your head. Stories or analogies conjure up concepts we already know and can identify with and create a common language that transforms the abstract into concrete.
  • Nurture a beginner’s mind: Embrace not knowing. With learned beliefs (preconceptions) out of the way, you’ll find yourself in a place of mental openness. No matter how much of an expert you are, if you treat each moment as a blank slate, you’ll be able to maintain shoshin (a Zen Buddhism philosophical concept that means “beginner’s mind”).
  • Create context: Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking with Einstein, writes: “It’s about taking information that is lacking in context, lacking in meaning, and figuring out a way to transform it so that it makes sense in the light of all the other things that you have floating around in your mind…. If you want to make something memorable, you first have to make it meaningful.”

The curse of knowledge can be a huge hurdle to basic understanding and a small misinterpretation can have a massive negative impact. For effective communication, try to remember what it’s like to not know a thing.

April M. Stewart is a sixth generation Quebec dairy farmer and blogger at the Farmer’s Survival Guide.

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