Why Possession of Knowledge Does Not Equal Expertise and How it Blocks Our Personal Growth

“Mere possession of knowledge is not enough for expertise. It is also critical for knowledge to be organized so that it can be activated and used in different contexts. Others emphasize flexible application of knowledge in new situations…Research on human performance shows that calling to mind knowledge is a significant cognitive process.”
– From Perspectives on Human Error: Hindsight Biases and Local Rationality, Woods and Cook

A collection of facts is not enough.

As Charlie Munger stated, “You can’t just memorize and bang out facts — they need to be in a latticework of mental models.”

This is the opposite approach of how you studied in undergrad or high school. You probably crammed your way through school. Unfortunately, cramming doesn’t work long-term.

What’s the alternative to cramming random facts in your head? Building a latticework structure in your mind to organize information in a logical and coherent system.

When you encounter certain problems, you must correctly interpret the situation and trigger the right information from your memory. This process will select the right model or framework to solve the problem. It’s like a flowchart. You follow the path based on your observation and interpretation of the problem. Because your training has created applicable models of real-world concepts, you simply follow the logical path to the correct solution.

It is not, and cannot be, a random collection of facts. The reason why is due to framing.

Framing is an important concept. Experts understand how the same problem will occur in different frames. Frames are simply different ways of presenting the same problem by changing the environment or situational context. As they progress through training, experts are aware that overconfidence can set in because they predict where standard questions are heading. However, the future will throw curveballs and almost imperceptible changes if experts don’t understand the problem’s frame. Misunderstanding the frame leads them to recall the wrong set of facts.

When we confuse knowledge with expertise, we lack the ability to recall knowledge and apply it to novel and unique situations. These situations have the same underlying problem yet occur in a different environment. If we are overly focused on memorizing specific facts without understanding the principles, we only build knowledge that is useful in one frame or dimension. We need to turn information gathering into applied wisdom.

Wisdom is Applied Knowledge

You are not a hard drive — seek wisdom instead of facts.

It’s important to emphasize two things.

First, we have the tendency to overvalue low-value, quantifiable facts over systems or principal-based learning. We want to crank out facts immediately rather than learn adaptable long-term principles.

You achieve this by focusing on the quality of your preparation, not the quantity. Don’t become obsessed with adding quick facts. Focus on the how the facts align into principles. Quantity will come naturally, but it will not be valuable if the knowledge foundation is a collection of random ideas. Once quality is firmly established, add quantity. Then, each additional knowledge block is reinforcing the connections in your brain, because you took the time to create a system to organize and apply new ideas.

Second, your brain is not a hard drive. You don’t get smarter by packing in more random facts about the world. This really only works for your short-term memory. In fact, most of us, including myself, packed our short-term memory during college as we studied for exams. We did this because we could and we didn’t know any better. We could get away with it. We got the grade we wanted, but left most of the long-term wisdom behind us.

This won’t work if you are striving to build exceptional skills and it’s a crappy way to go through life. There is a much better way to create long-term wisdom– and this idea gives you the framework to supercharge your time and effort, by consciously focusing and meticulously reorienting towards principal-based learning, not data gathering.

Wisdom is not the same thing as information. Wisdom is information + experience + context, and only a human can do that. Wisdom is information you can actually use. Here’s a better example of the difference between information and wisdom, an example Richard Feynman liked to use: The “name” of a thing is not the thing. Feynman’s dad taught him the name of a bird they saw (brown-throated thrush) in every language he knew. That’s just information. The wisdom came when he pointed out that you could know every name of that bird in every language but still know nothing about the bird itself. -Tucker Max

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