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On the nature of knowledge

A story about the process of becoming an “expert”

Andrew Howden
Mar 20, 2019 · 6 min read

I have been extraordinarily lucky in my software development career. Given a limited set of experience and idle curiosity about computers I was able to meet a number of people who guided me to developing my development skill set until it is the reasonably broad, experienced skill it is today.

As I’ve grown as a developer I’ve been able to meet other extraordinary developers; those who when I was early in my career seemed god-like in the ability to produce software, understand or diagnose some issue or be able to foresee some industry pattern. Even outside of the software development vertical I’ve been able to meet those who’ve made multi-million dollar fortunes, captains of their respective industry and those who direct and manage the building of monumental, towering structures. As I’ve met each of these people one thing has struck me each time:

These industrial giants are simply people

This, and the subsequent conclusion there are few or none who are inherently more talented or capable than we is both disheartening and tremendously exciting. This was expressed eloquently by the founder of Apple:

“When you grow up you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it… Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.” — Steve Jobs

This notion that there are some among us who are individually (or by virtue of a corporation collectively) superior is a pleasant notion, but in my experience fictitious. However, this is dishearteningly cruel to those who are growing either through their new entry into an industry, or simply growing as people. Those who reflect on their own capabilities against the capabilities of these giants, find themselves wanton and conclude rather than that they’re also capable of such learnings rather conclude their somehow deficient in some way. To those people I would wish to pass the message:

To understand what separates those people from our younger selves we should start unpacking what it is to be knowledgeable about a topic.

On Knowledge

Wikipedia defines knowledge as follows:

Knowledge is a familiarity, awareness, or understanding of someone or something, such as facts, information, descriptions, or skills, which is acquired through experience or education by perceiving, discovering, or learning.

That’s an extraordinarily broad definition, so we’ll refine it a little further:

Knowledge is the ability to make a “thing” do useful “work”

Given this, the sum total of our knowledge is the amount of “things” we’re able to make do useful “work”. The more knowledgeable we are, the more things we can use to do more work.

To make this more concrete, we’ll use the example of a wooden staff — essentially, a long straight stick.

A useful stick

If we were to enumerate a naive set of ways we could use a stick we might come up with:

  1. Poke something
  2. Hit something

Not an enlightened list to be sure, but it serves as a base line of utility for the stick and is more utility than many of our animal cousins have derived from it.

The tree of knowledge

In this scenario, the acquisition of more knowledge would be finding new and interesting ways to use our stick. For example:

  • We might figure out that if we leverage our stick against a rock we can multiply the force we’re able to output many times more force than we’re otherwise able to exert on the stick, multiplying our sticky power
  • We might collect a series of sticks and stack them together vertically, such that we have a fence between us and the outside world
  • We might combine the stick with some leather or skin wrapped tightly such that we can create a structure on which we can lay leaves or more skin, forming a shelter

The uses for a stick are essentially infinite, however not all of them are apparent from the first glance of the stick. Over time we must reason further about the stick, trying it in new circumstances to derive additional knowledge.

We can further start to make judgements about the many sticks that we might come across. For example:

  • Sticks from a given tree make better shelters
  • When sticks are burned they harden, and make much better levers and building material
  • Some sticks burn better than others, giving more heat at the cost of more stick

Over time we broaden our knowledge of sticks until the stick is a tremendously useful object indeed.

Acquiring knowledge

In my experience the acquisition of knowledge is driven almost entirely by a combination of curiosity and necessity, rather than by a rote repetition. This is unfortunate as much of my scholastic career was focussed almost entirely on the completion of a set of repetitious tasks, rather than a critical analysis or learning of some kind. A poor preparation for a world in which our metaphoric sticks are being used in ways that are very different indeed than what I was taught as a youth.

However, to dismiss the education system is to do a disservice to oneself and to the broader community maintaining it. Passing on knowledge is a difficult task indeed and our education system does the best it knows how to do so. Given this it is our duty to dip in to and try and derive value from traditional forms of education as well as from some of the newer ways of expressing knowledge — YouTube, Twitter or whatever else.

In my experience if we do this, better systems appear shortly thereafter.

Absolute limits of knowledge

That which is the best in the world is generally not the work of a single visionary, but rather of a team well motivated to contribute their own specialisations to a common goal. The iPhone was not the work of Mr. Jobs but rather of teams of engineers, designers, manufacturers, logistics and administrative staff.

The lesson to derive of this is that there are fundamental limits on our ability to learn all of the things that need to be done to create great products, services or anything else. Even if we could there is a cap in how much time we can work until we reach exhaustion.

Our knowledge is secondary to the respect we need to pay our colleagues, and it is our responsibility to cultivate the humility necessary to defer to our colleagues in their areas of expertise.

In Conclusion

There are those among us who seem truly different; inspirational figures who we intuitively feel are somehow apart from us and able to do things that we cannot. It is uncomfortable to realise those who we venerate are still human, however it is exciting to know that we can ourselves be as great or greater than our idols. The acquisition of knowledge is a process that is fairly simple but requires continually exposing ourselves to new information; new ways of viewing a problem and the solutions thereof. Additionally, no matter the knowledge we acquire we will never be able to create the truly great products and services we’d like ourselves. Rather, it is in conjunction with our colleagues that we’ll be able to be successful.

This is a lesson that I wish I had learned at a younger age, but perhaps this post will find someone at a time they are able to hear it, and save them the years I spent learning it the hard way.

Always be learning.

Originally published at www.littleman.co on March 20, 2019.

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