The Real Curse of Knowledge

“Here, we have some cylinder head damage,” Tavarish says, looking yet again at the engine of the flooded McLaren P1 he bought, hoping to restore it to former glory. “That right there is eaten away, so this cylinder head is going to need to be welded up and maybe even ground down.” I have no idea what he means, but I love following along regardless.

Now, it may not apply to Youtube videos you post on the internet, but if Tavarish and I were having this same conversation over some tacos, experts would call me a victim of “the curse of knowledge.” Think Sherlock Holmes talking to Dr. Watson: One person is five miles ahead of the other. While Holmes rolls his eyes at Watson’s slowness in catching up, the latter can barely formulate the right questions that, if answered by Holmes, would get him back on track. If you’ve ever had a friend go on passionately about a topic, assuming you’re totally clued in when, in reality, you were just nodding along, you, too, have experienced the curse of knowledge.

There’s no one to blame, really. Interests diverge. One person might spend ten years repairing cars, another investigates crime — and both rack up so much knowledge in their field, it’s impossible to remember their earliest days every time they sit down for a group dinner. While it can be hard to relate to people on levels you’ve long left behind, the remedy is often only one interruption away: “Can you pretend I’m five? Sorry, I don’t know much about cylinder heads.”

The real and more challenging curse of knowledge, if you ask me, lies in the head not of a cylinder but of the expert: The more you know, the more you know what you don’t know — and the vastness of that unmapped territory can be paralyzing.

After nearly ten years of writing, it’s easy to crank out a daily blogs with the stakes deliberately set low. Some of the “masterpieces” in my drafts folder, however, have been developing at a snail’s pace for several years. The more you already know, the more additional knowledge you’ll need each time you try to top your previous best performance. The research that once went into an entire essay might now go into a single sentence. That takes time and, often, an emotional toll. You can’t ship as quickly as you used to, and it feels like all that knowledge you’ve acquired is being put to use less and less. It gets harder to keep pushing and easier to just settle for lower standards.

The real curse of knowledge is not failing to connect with someone because you assume they have the same level of expertise that you do. It is to stop pursuing knowledge altogether because what you’ve learned so far feels safe and comfortable.

Perhaps, the universe was designed to be incomprehensible on purpose: For every one answer, there should be two new questions. Those questions will always make us think, but they must not deter us from making our own contributions to said universe. Keep learning. Making. Releasing. As long as you’re too busy having fun, like Watson trailing slightly behind Holmes, the real curse of knowledge will never catch up to you.