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The Curse of Knowledge

I am 31 years old and for the last seven weeks I've been learning how to swim. Up to this point in my life whenever I've gotten into a pool what my body does would be accurately called "not drowning" than swimming. When a fitness competition I signed up for announced there would be a swim event, I knew I'd have to improve to at least the level of the toddlers learning in the pool next to me.

Other than said toddlers, I went to the pool alone for the first six practice sessions. I didn't invite any of my other friends with me because I knew that they were much better swimmers than I was and I needed to log a couple of hours of fundamentals before I could dream of doing a workout with them.

I'd improved my breathing, position, and stroke substantially so I decided to invite my workout partners to my most recent practice. The minute we were in the pool I knew I was literally and figuratively in over my head.

They watched me swim a few laps and then stopped me. "Your legs aren't producing enough power. It starts at the hip and reverberates down through your leg. You're bending your knee too much. Until you get your legs right, your breathing won't improve."

For a few minutes they loaded me up with all the advice they could muster. While they all had good intentions of helping me swim more proficiently, they were suffering from what psychologists call the "Curse of Knowledge."

The "Curse of Knowledge" can be thought of a cognitive shadow cast over the minds of experts that makes it difficult for them to communicate their expertise on a subject to amateurs.

Essentially, when we know everything about something, it is exceedingly difficult to imagine not knowing anything about it. In turn, teaching someone else about that idea or topic is challenging as we can't imagine not knowing about it.

My friends are incredible swimmers. They've been swimming well for almost their entire lives, so long that they have forgotten what it is like to not be able to swim well. Therefor, they struggled to explain swimming to me, an amateur, in a way that was useful.

If we are seeking advice or instruction on a topic, our first instinct might be to find an expert. However, the research tells us that someone who has progressed in the field, but is yet to be a master may provide advice that is more useful.

If we are an expert on a matter and someone asks us for instruction, try and remember what it was like to know nothing. Explaining the concept as you would to a toddler might get you further than lecturing like you would to PhD's.

Toddlers, as I've discovered the past few weeks, aren't just a benchmark for my swimming aspirations, but an example how teaching the fundamentals is often more challenging that it appears.


The first year he taught, Einstein only had three students sign up for his debut course at the University of Bern. A year later, he had to cancel the course due to lack of interest.


Think of something you're an expert in. Write down the three things you'd tell a toddler if they asked you to teach them about it.


What comes naturally to you, but you struggle explaining to others?


"Those who can do, can't teach." - Adam Grant

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