What Am I Meant To Know?

I am a data junky. I love to know things. How things work. How things came to be. How things are made. I want to know. This is not a bad thing in general. Knowledge can be good when it enables us to move ourselves and those around us in positive directions. Knowledge can lift us out of the darkness of ignorance.

My problem is that I easily choose knowledge over understanding and information over people. If I am not carefully intentional, I can focus all my attention on collecting data and miss the importance of the moment. I am prone to see situations as opportunities to collect information instead of potential moments to connect with another person. I risk reducing the people around me to mere objects and my relationship with them to one of scientific curiosity.

In “The Dyer’s Hand”, poet W. H. Auden writes that in Shakespeare’s Othello, Iago has reduced Othello to an object, about which Iago knows only the scientific truth. Auden goes on to question the notion that the right to know is absolute and unlimited. He says, “We are quite prepared to admit that, while food and sex are good in themselves, an uncontrolled pursuit of either is not, but it is difficult for us to believe that intellectual curiosity is a desire like any other and to realize that correct knowledge and truth are not identical.”

This is my dilemma, that my curiosity is simultaneously a useful tool and a difficult master.

Knowledge, or information, just for the sake of knowing is problematic at best. At its worst, it is invasive, manipulative, and damaging. This is not only true when other people are concerned. It can also apply to my private and personal thoughts and motivations. The desire to know more can lead me to the false belief that I am somehow able to control my environment. My addict brain (and we all have one by the way) loves this idea and will grab hold and hang on. In this mental frame, I find myself rushing through life, missing the important and the nuanced.

The curse of knowledge is real. When we have acquired a significant amount of knowledge about something, it becomes very difficult for us to connect with people who don’t know. In 1990 a graduate student at Stanford University studied a game in which people had one of two roles. “Tappers” were asked to pick a well-known song, such as “Happy Birthday,” and tap out the rhythm on a table. “Listeners” were to guess the song. 120 songs were tapped out and the listeners only guessed three correctly. A success rate of merely 2.5%. However, when the tappers were asked to predict how accurate the listeners would be, they guessed 50%. The tappers thought they would get their message across 1 out of 2 times, but they were only hitting 1 out of 40.

As leaders, we often think we are clearly communicating our vision. We have been immersed in the logic and strategy and are very familiar with our ideas and terminology. However, others aren’t privy to all the data in our heads and the underlying meaning and what they hear is often opaque and unclear. To combat this “curse of knowledge” we can do a few simple things:

  • Slow down. We have had time to become comfortable with the concepts we are trying to communicate. Like the tappers, we are tempted to believe everyone else will get it quickly and easily. However, as a listener, it can be very difficult to recognize the song that is being tapped out.
  • Be a listener. Sometime the easiest way to make sure people are following along is to ask them what they think is being said. Asking isn’t enough though. We also must create an environment where it is safe to say, “I don’t understand” or “I don’t know.” If we talk all the time and never listen, we make our curse of knowledge everyone’s curse.
  • Use concrete language. This helps correct the information imbalance. “Achieving customer delight” is vague and general. “Making customers our partners, anticipating their needs, and providing timely solutions” is concrete, actionable, and stickier.

A very wise man I admire says, “Things only move at the speed of relationship.” If I want progress and improvement in any area of my life, it is going to follow improvement in relationships. So how do I apply this to one-on-one interactions with the people I care about? It starts with a simple shift. Instead of asking, “What can I know?”, I need to ask, “What, at this moment, am I meant to know?”

I do not need to know everything about a person’s situation to demonstrate care and compassion. I do not need to know everything about someone’s plan to commit to do my best in support of them. I do not need to have all the answers before I get involved.

When I slow down and listen to others, then attempt to repeat to myself and them what I have heard in concrete terms, I become aware of what is really important, what I am meant to know. The environment we create when “knowing” is a path to relationship instead of an end to itself is one where it is safe to be known, and it is The Kimray Way.