I spent almost all of yesterday on the road and so I don’t have much time to go looking for things to write about. But there has been something on my mind for a good long time that I would like to related to you: how we gain knowledge by giving it away. But I’ll be honest: I may have written about this before. By the end of this month, Frankly Curious will have published 7,000 articles — the vast majority of them being by me. And I don’t know what I’ve written. The funny thing is that I often find that things I had thought I had written about — obvious things — I hadn’t.
When I was taking math in college, I was always at the top of my class. I remember the first calculus exam I ever took, I got an 86. The next best score was 63. And the rest were in the 40s. I don’t say that to indicate that I am particularly brilliant, even though when it comes to math I am something of a natural. But the point is that I was always helping other people. I was also a tutor of the more basic math students. But I always felt that I was getting far more out it than those I was helping.
But helping others does come naturally to me. I have never been of the mind that giving away knowledge is harming me. Others do not feel this way. I used to take care of all the IT work for a mid-sized real estate investment company. The “stars” of the company were the acquisition agents, who were responsible for purchasing land that could be sold quickly at a profit by the “lesser” agents. And these guys (all men) made a lot of money — between $10,000 and $20,000 per month. I rather liked them, although a few were jerks.
There was one guy I quite liked. He was the most technically savvy of any of them. He was very accomplished with Visual Basic and could do amazing things with Excel. And over the years, I taught him a lot. And he explained a number of things with me. He had no problem answering any question I might have of him. (It wasn’t often; Excel wasn’t even part of our standard work tools.) But he certainly saw me as a guy who gave as much as he took.
But I noticed that he would not help the other agents. If they were having technical problems, they were on their own. And if they saw him do some cool trick, he would refuse to explain it to them. I thought this was very shortsighted. The truth is that he was always going to be top dog and by explaining, he was going to learn more.
Now I understand: he had other work to do. He was paid only on commission. But that attitude toward maintaining one’s knowledge advantage is very common. And it is more or less the basis of our economic system. This is, after all, what patents and copyrights are all about. You will notice that at the bottom of all the pages on Frankly Curious, it says, “© 2009-2016.” But that is the nature of the system. I would gladly change to a system where I do nothing but produce the best content I can in exchange for a reasonable standard of living but no ability to ever get rich. But that isn’t on offer, so I yield to the the realities of life.
Despite the fact that I was by far the best math student in any of my college classes, I am not a great mathematician. In graduate school, I met a number of people who blew me away. And I loved it! It’s great to be in a position to appreciate the brilliance of others. And I think that as time goes on, if our civilization continues to grow, we will get past this petty desire to maintain a knowledge advantage. Because passing on knowledge helps us all. And from a practical standpoint, it helps those who share it most of all.
Afterword: Knowledge Giving in Its Place
There is another side of this that I used to run into when I was doing IT — and which Will still has to deal with. When you are fixing a computer as a contractor, people will often want to sit next to you and “learn how to do it.” This is not the same thing. For one thing, having people ask a stream of questions makes the repair go much slower, and most repairs are not done on an hourly basis. For another thing, it is offensive. The implication is that all you are doing is this one thing — that knowing what to do isn’t part of a vastly larger base of knowledge. No one would ever think it appropriate to ask a plumber to teach them the art while the toilet gets fixed.