The 'Curse of Knowledge' & the Amateur Spirit
It's no mystery to me why this fascinating exploration of the tension between knowledge and expertise on the one hand and the ability to innovate on the other rocketed to the top of the list of most-emailed articles yesterday on the New York Times website. As of mid-day today, it remains in the top spot.
The heart of the piece may be this passage: "This so-called curse of knowledge, a phrase used in a 1989 paper in The Journal of Political Economy, means that once you’ve become an expert in a particular subject, it’s hard to imagine not knowing what you do. Your conversations with others in the field are peppered with catch phrases and jargon that are foreign to the uninitiated. When it’s time to accomplish a task — open a store, build a house, buy new cash registers, sell insurance — those in the know get it done the way it has always been done, stifling innovation as they barrel along the well-worn path."
It's seemingly quite a conundrum. Should those seeking to innovate--which I hope is all of us to one degree or another, in whatever field of endeavor you happen to be in--try to somehow forget everything they know and have learned, often at great sacrifice? Should they ignore their hard-won expertise and try to revert to some form of mental clean slate? I don't know about you, but to me, that seems to be at war with everything I know, feel and think, and even with my involuntary instincts. Thus, it would seem to be a losing proposition to try that path.
But I'm not so sure this is an either-or proposition. In fact, I'm pretty sure it's not. I think life is mostly about finding balance in all things--between work and play, between pure optimism and realism, and between intuition and more linear thinking. And that would include balancing between pure knowledge and experience and what I like to call "the amateur spirit." This is an important concept that I've mentioned here too infrequently (shame on me), though I did recently link to this quote about the subject and I also touched on it a bit here.
Professionalism and a well-refined sense of craft--reinforced by a drive for lifelong learning--are crucial in any calling or line of work. And when these are overlayed with a novice's sense of fresh wonder and possibility, just about anything seems possible. I wish you much luck in the new year, gentle reader, in finding that balance in your life and work.