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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.

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