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Linking the curse of knowledge, imposter syndrome, and metaknowledge

I’ve been doing quite a bit of teaching and mentoring lately. Those teaching and mentoring experiences have led me to think about what I know without even realizing that I know it. At a deep-seated, subconscious level, I’ve forgotten that I once didn’t know certain stuff.

I’ve also been thinking about the effect of that very forgetting on the people I’m teaching or mentoring. And the effect of that forgetting on myself and on my own confidence levels. 

During all this thinking, it occurred to me that there’s a link between two often-discussed phenomena: the curse of knowledge and imposter syndrome.

The curse of knowledge

It’s all too easy to forget how much we know and what skills we wield. In particular, if you’ve been studying or practising in an area of knowledge for a long time, it’s easy to forget what it felt like when you knew nothing about that area. This phenomenon is called the curse of knowledge.

Typically, when people talk about the curse of knowledge, they’re referring to the fact that it’s hard for experts to put themselves into the shoes of a novice. As experts, we tend to assume too much knowledge on the part of others. When a new person joins our team, for example, we may not give them enough information to enable them to start doing their job. We may gloss over the basics or not even mention the most crucial aspects of something that we’re trying to explain.

Here’s an example: At work, I sometimes teach a class on the basic principles of information architecture. The class is for software engineers and other members of a product engineering team. When teaching the class, I often feel a temptation to rush through the early part of the training, which lays the groundwork for more in depth concepts. To me, the early part can seem tedious and repetitious. Surely the people attending the class must find this material boring? 

I have to remind myself frequently that I feel that way only because this stuff is my bread and butter. For the class attendees, on the other hand, it’s essential to lay the groundwork before getting to the more complex part of the material.

Imposter syndrome

The term imposter syndrome refers to a feeling that we don’t deserve the success we’ve achieved or the praise we’re given. Many people have this feeling, even very successful people. It originates in a deeply held belief that our accomplishments have come to us by luck rather than by merit. It’s a feeling that, although things looks good to other people, everything might crumble and fall in an instant, because we don’t really have the skill to hold it all together. We could be unveiled as an imposter at any time.

Two sides of the same coin

Recently, I realised that the curse of knowledge and imposter syndrome are linked. If we’ve forgotten how much we’ve learned over a period of time, it’s all too easy to think other people know so much more than us. Are so much more skilled than us. Are so much more worthy of success than us.

Our knowledge increases over time. Somewhat contrary to expectation, the curse of knowledge can increase in power over time too. The more experience we gain, the more we forget how much we know.

What can we do about this Catch-22?

I find mentoring or training other people is very enlightening. When students or mentees ask questions or discuss points with me, I sometimes have an aha moment. Hey, this is something that I know and that I can help this person with. This person is very bright and well trained, but they just don’t know this stuff yet. It helps me to get a glimpse of what I know, seen from their point of view.

Writing stuff down is also useful. For example, writing blog posts. Trying to formulate what I know, from the point of view of someone who’s a beginner in a particular area, shows me just how much I know and how complex the information is when I structure it for someone else.

Another thing I’ve found useful is taking training courses, even if the material is largely about things that I already know. Re-doing the training puts the information in a new perspective and cements my awareness of the knowledge. 

Knowing what we know is a kind of metaknowledge. I think that gaining and cultivating this metaknowledge helps us communicate with others and have more confidence in ourselves.

The way we communicate

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been mulling over the way we communicate. Every now and then, people say that we (people in general, our generation, the younger generation, the Internet denizens, …) are losing the ability to concentrate for more than a few nanoseconds at a time. We accuse ourselves of not reading anything, of losing energy and switching context too quickly. You’ve heard all this before.

But I think that’s wrong. Instead, we’re radically changing the way we gather and consume knowledge.

Asynchronous, extended and creative information gathering

We communicate asynchronously. We take information from a wide number of sources, and munge it together. And we do it creatively.

Our attention span is not shorter, but rather much more extended than before. We pick up thoughts, drop them, then pick them up again later, not minding too much if they’ve changed a bit in the meantime.

Also, we use the cloud for much of our communication. In our household, which is probably fairly typical, there are devices lying around all over the show. I pick up my mobile phone when I want personal access to my social sites. But if I’m in the living room and just want to read some blogs or search for some info, I will pick up the family iPad if it’s closer. When I want desktop apps and a bigger keyboard, I boot up my Windows PC. If an Apple Mac is lying around, I’ll open it up for quicker access to the web. (Macs boot up so much more quickly than Windows PCs.)

Our communication is more fluid than it’s ever been. And more technical.

The science of technical communication needs to take this into account.

We’re there already

Now I’m putting on my “technical communicator” hat. By accident or by design, many of us have slipped into multi-channel mode already. In illustration, here are some of the channels in which I answer customers’ questions and pass on hints and tips:

  • Wiki-based documentation
  • Community question-and-answer forum
  • Twitter
  • Corporate blog
  • Personal blog
  • Email
  • Webinars
  • Skype calls
  • LinkedIn
  • Facebook
  • Conferences
  • User group meetings
  • Special-interest social sites
  • A book

What do technical communicators need?

It’s tempting to say that we need a tool that helps us find, manage and present all these sources of information in a useful way.

Do we need a new tool, or do we need to learn how to use the channels that people are already using to communicate?

What do we have already that comes close? What would the ideal solution look like?

Perhaps what I’m looking for is there already. It’s called the Internet, with Google smoothed over the top. Perhaps what I’m looking for is the Semantic Web.

But I can’t help thinking that those are too vast and therefore not helpful. Do we need a tool that fits the needs of technical communication in particular? But tools get out of date so quickly, specialist tools in particular.

Do we need clever technical communicators who keep abreast of new technology, whether it’s developed for us or not, and constantly devise ways to use it to give our readers what they need?

Yes, that’s it. And that’s why we’ll never be without a job.

End of my rambling train of thought

What do you think of all that? 🙂

A tranquil scene from a ramble on Sydney Harbour North Head

AODC – a new grammar for online communication

This week I’m attending the Australasian Online Documentation and Content Conference (AODC) on the Gold Coast in Queensland, Australia. Today Jonathan Halls spoke about the new media and multimedia, and how things are changing in the world of communication.

Jonathan is chairman of Talkshow Communication Ltd. His presentation style is charming and funny and he tells a good story. At this session, he talked about the changes in our way of life and communication style, which mean that we technical communicators need a new “grammar”. His definition of a grammar is “the principles or rules of an art, science or technique”.

There are no rules for this new grammar yet. It is up to us, the technical communicators, to write the new grammar. What’s more, instead of looking to write a set of rules, we should be looking for the right list of questions.

Some titbits

These are some interesting nuggets of information from Jonathan’s talk:

  • Kids don’t use capital letters any more.
  • Think about teenagers’ concentration spans and multi-tasking abilities — if we write the way we were taught to, they’re not taking it in.
  • On a web page, the average person reads 200 words then stops.
  • What do you think is the typical demographic of Second Life? One person in the audience responded quickly with “People who don’t have a first life”. 🙂 The interesting answer is: People aged 35 to 45, Northern European, who are high earners.
  • 25% of kids use “lol” and emoticons in their schoolwork.

Evolution of the story

Jonathan does tell a good story. While telling us a story of a caveman’s conversation with his wife, Jonathan also pointed out how story telling has moved from the interactive, multi-media and non-linear style a caveman would have used, through the recorded, narrative style made possible and enforced by writing and the printing-press, through film and radio, to the web. We’ve now come full circle, because the web allows us to combine the media and tell an interactive, non-linear story again.

Principles for the new grammar

Moving back to the new grammar we need, Jonathan listed five principles:

  • Multiple methods, or multimedia — we need to make sure we understand what works where.
  • Moving from a linear to a non-linear narrative — becoming more conversational and acknowledging the fact that the audience doesn’t necessarily want to read the whole document. Blogs, wikis, forums. This ties in neatly with the DITA workshop I attended and blogged about yesterday — technology enabling modular documentation.
  • Interactive participation — yielding control back to your reader; communication is becoming more personal.
  • Shared authorship — wikis; using amateur writers to add value; acknowledging that you as technical communicator can’t do it all alone.
  • Shift of your audience to a community — wikis and blogs again.

My conclusions

Jonathan‘s talk brought home the way our lifestyles and communication methods have changed over the last fifteen years. I personally am lucky that I’m working in an environment which already uses much of the technology he mentioned. Even so, the message is clear: Keep innovating, keep thinking of new ways of doing things, and don’t get trapped into a paradigm where our new methods are bounded by the traditional ways.

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