Monday, December 31, 2007

The 'Curse of Knowledge' & the Amateur Spirit

It's no mystery to me why this fascinating exploration of the tension between knowledge and expertise on the one hand and the ability to innovate on the other rocketed to the top of the list of most-emailed articles yesterday on the New York Times website. As of mid-day today, it remains in the top spot.

The heart of the piece may be this passage: "This so-called curse of knowledge, a phrase used in a 1989 paper in The Journal of Political Economy, means that once you’ve become an expert in a particular subject, it’s hard to imagine not knowing what you do. Your conversations with others in the field are peppered with catch phrases and jargon that are foreign to the uninitiated. When it’s time to accomplish a task — open a store, build a house, buy new cash registers, sell insurance — those in the know get it done the way it has always been done, stifling innovation as they barrel along the well-worn path."

It's seemingly quite a conundrum. Should those seeking to innovate--which I hope is all of us to one degree or another, in whatever field of endeavor you happen to be in--try to somehow forget everything they know and have learned, often at great sacrifice? Should they ignore their hard-won expertise and try to revert to some form of mental clean slate? I don't know about you, but to me, that seems to be at war with everything I know, feel and think, and even with my involuntary instincts. Thus, it would seem to be a losing proposition to try that path.

But I'm not so sure this is an either-or proposition. In fact, I'm pretty sure it's not. I think life is mostly about finding balance in all things--between work and play, between pure optimism and realism, and between intuition and more linear thinking. And that would include balancing between pure knowledge and experience and what I like to call "the amateur spirit." This is an important concept that I've mentioned here too infrequently (shame on me), though I did recently link to this quote about the subject and I also touched on it a bit here.

Professionalism and a well-refined sense of craft--reinforced by a drive for lifelong learning--are crucial in any calling or line of work. And when these are overlayed with a novice's sense of fresh wonder and possibility, just about anything seems possible. I wish you much luck in the new year, gentle reader, in finding that balance in your life and work.


At 10:34 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

In Zen practice they call it "beginner's mind." You can know all you know, but still approach the world with fresh eyes. It's the opposite of "expert mind." You may have noticed that "expert mind" almost always involves pride, ego, and often enough ego-inflation. Beginner's mind is also about humility in the face of waht we don't know; assuming that we know so little, in fact, we know almost nothing, and can never know it all; so learning is a process of continuous discovery, continuous experiment, continuous re-en-light-enment.

You're correct I believe: it's not a either/or paradigm. It's both/and.

At 11:37 PM, Blogger Cleveland Carole Cohen 3C said...

ooh I like Art's thoughts on this. Zen usually has a good answer! I also think we can keep the expertise but search out 'beginner' and new ideas. Change can be embraced! Happy New Year to you and your family John!

At 7:44 AM, Blogger Don Iannone said...

John: Wishing you bright stars, sweet dreams, deep laughter, peace in the middle of a snowstorm, and warm sunny mornings sittin' in the sun. Happy New Year! Don

At 9:44 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

How wonderfully poetic to hear from Don the Poet on New Year's. I wish the same and more for you and your family, my friend. And thanks so much for stopping by.

At 11:02 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Art, thanks for that great addition. I'll remember the beginner's mind next time I sit down to write (and, I hope, every time after that). And happy new year to you, and to Carole as well. Thank you all so much for reading, and especially for adding to the conversation so wonderfully.


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