Getting Knowledge by Giving Knowledge

Teacher and Students Gaining KnowledgeI 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.

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.

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.

20 thoughts on “Getting Knowledge by Giving Knowledge

  1. I am a virtuoso expert on toilet repair, having lived in enough buildings with absentee landlords and worked in enough facilities with unreliable maintenance staff that yes, my friends, there is no part of a toilet I don’t understand.

    So sometimes the person peering over your shoulder asking “is that how you do this” really wants to know. Mostly they’re just being dicks who demean your work and want to make you aware they don’t think much of your skills. Every now and then, it’s someone who could use whatever hints you pass along. I’ve learned a ton of helpful things from repair pros.

    If I could go back in time and retrain myself for my current existence, I’d be an appliance repairman. It’s an honorable profession, and if I had 20 years more experience, I’d be good at it. It’s basically just taking things apart and putting them back together in reverse order, and I can follow linear instructions like that. (The trick is, when you take stuff apart, recognizing which piece is the broken one needing repair. That’s what you need experience and training for.)

    Plus, I’ve seen the video clips. Every time an appliance repairman shows up at a house, they get ravished by buxom hotties. It’s on film! It’s true!

    • Here’s a true story of a job that Will and I did. A law firm was having a problem with its network and phone system. I think they had recently moved. The problem was pretty trivial. I knew what the problem was within 5 minutes. I was a little concerned that we had missed something because it was so easy. But these were very wealthy clients so we were not going to make any mistakes and we were going to make sure that we made a reasonable amount out of the job. I know the type well and charging them little will certainly mean that they will never use you again. They charge a lot of money and they think that means they are good. Anyway, it was an easy job and we did their whole network over again the way it should have been done and set up all their phones, which had been misprogrammed.

      As I was finishing up, installing the phone in the top lawyer’s office, he told me that he used to do IT. Then he told me that he would have just done the job himself but he just didn’t have the time. Well, the problem we had been called to fix only took a couple of minutes. So it wasn’t actually true that he didn’t have the time. But I was amazed that the guy would be so insecure to feel the need to tell me that not only was he a lawyer but also as good a tech as I was. It was amazing.

      I date back to the days when networking really was hard. There were routing tables and getting one thing to talk to another was a real pain. I know just what this guy was talking about: buying a router, putting the CD into the drive, and having everything done for you. So I know a few things about networking. But I don’t think that much of my skills. Still, I understand the broader point the guy was making. Right now, it is a waste of my time to do my own IT work. But it is actually the case that I could do any networking that I need, even if I don’t want to. And more important, I would never be such a horrible (And presumptuous!) person as to tell anyone working for me that I’m just hiring them because I’m too important to do their lowly job. The guy had the least amount of class of anyone I have ever met, and I’ve hung out with people at the very lowest level of society.

      • What a shithead. But that’s demeaning to feces-based craniums, comparing them to this guy.

        Some people are just like that. I don’t know why this is. Serious damage must have been done to their personalities way back in the past.

        I had a fight with my landlord a few years ago. I started with arguing my room should be warmer. “That’s not my problem,” he told me. Under state law it is, but I can’t enforce it, so I shifted gears. I got loud abut the elevator being broken. We have people in wheelchairs and using walkers in this building; they need the elevator.

        So he went on a tirade about how I, and every person in the building, was a piece of ass loser. It was way beyond what was necessary (I won’t fix your heating, I won’t fix the elevator.) It was the single most savage rant I’ve ever heard.

        Perhaps to the point is that this guy inherited the building from his dad. The dad was a dick, but I could deal with him. If I complained enough, the dad got shit fixed.

        Maybe, to a degree, I get this? We live in a society that judges us all the time, every minute. Where you live, what you do, the things you own, all are a measure of your worth as a human. Your personal relationships are judged by what they say about your status. Are you single? You loser. Are you married? To whom, you pathetic nothing. It’s constant and it’s overwhelming.

        So, in a way, I can get how a scared son of a mean dad would turn on other people. Being better than others is all American culture tells us we’re useful for.

        Still — shithead. And that lawyer who was so rude to you? Shithead. I’ve been an uncaring person, you have, everybody has. There are some lines of Super Gigantic Shithead you just don’t cross.

        • Perhaps this is an over-intellectualization, and I ain’t no political sociologist, but this ‘shithead’ is just another example of a trend I think I’m seeing in how people relate in contemporary life – especially in the USA.

          It’s a rejection of the democratic ethic and a restoration of the medieval European noble ethic. People are praised and judged not for what they do and contribute, but for what they have and who they know. Or perhaps more accurately: we’re losing the ability to make this actually quite clear distinction.

          The ‘network’ trend always has been around, but it’s got extreme. People with high-paying jobs are convinced of their personal virtue and ignore the fact that there are many others just as skilled and intelligent, but who just don’t know the right people.

          Shithead thinks, absurdly, that his land ownership shows him to be superior to his renters (‘moochers’). And he’s got Poopyhead (a.k.a. Paul Ryan) publically backing him up.

          I know that in some left/liberal circles this is not a way to win friends and influence people, but I seem to see that the postmodern and deconstructive tendencies in the academy have contributed in large degree to this trend – by disabling our intellectual defences against concept conflation and charlatanry. Pretending that trivial distinctions are problematic and that deeply vague conceptualizations are the right way to talk about people.

        • Since I’m pointing fingers at anti-intellectual baddies, I guess I also have to blame the right-wing rational choice theorists, who basically refuse the distinction between economic productivity and economic success as an axiom. Thus, those that earn little are by definition inferior to those who earn more, and irrational consumer behavior is by definition impossible.

          If consumers were rational the economy would collapse immediately.

        • The kid sounds like the product of privilege. And I assume that he is exactly the kind of guy who put a “I Did Build That!” bumper sticker on his car. My lawyer was probably just insecure. And he may have thought it was a way of relating to me.

      • It shouldn’t be a surprise that he was that low class-some attorneys think they are second only to God and don’t appear in court enough to find out who really is arrogant. :D

        • That’s why I wanted to be in charge of hiring at your hospital. A lot of doctors are the same way. And it really doesn’t take more than two minutes talking with them to realize which ones are this insufferable. I don’t care if they can cure cancer by blinking at it; those people should never have a job, anywhere.

          • I want ones who know how to apologize for screwing up. Yes it will make the lawsuits for medical malpractice more difficult but damn it, when you screw up, you say you are sorry!

        • I do think a lot of people go into the law for the wrong reasons. But that’s true of pretty much any profession.

  2. I have never wanted to learn what the people fixing the computer are doing. There is little point since I will forget it immediately after they explain it. So instead I make stupid comments because I am an awkward person and have no idea what to do with myself when someone more competent than I is fixing a computer.

    Unless it is at work and in that case, I can usually find some file to issue a ruling on.

    As for passing on knowledge, about half of my job is giving instant legal educations to self represented litigants. So I do pass on some knowledge.

    • I would think it would be especially true with the law. I know in physics, its in the teaching that you start to ask yourself little details that you glossed over before.

      • My biggest problem teaching others has always been how fast I talk. I can cover a lot of stuff but if I say it at 200 words a minute, the average person doesn’t understand most of what I am yammering on about without some basic legal knowledge.

        It has made me be more creative for those who don’t-trying to explain the concept of appeal to someone who grew up where that was not common knowledge is fun.

        • I love teaching. It’s a great challenge. You have to assess the level the person you’re speaking to is coming from and relate complicated ideas in a way that person can grasp.

          Acting is, I suspect, the same way. So is writing, although writing is pretty much impossible to get right.

          The enjoyable and horrifying thing about teaching kids is, they’re accustomed to emotional abuse. Parents are largely that bad. So if you treat a kid with any amount of respect at all, they’ll be really attentive. You can completely screw up the lesson and they’ll still get something from it. They’re just grateful that an adult didn’t treat them like shit.

          I’d teach professionally, but I wouldn’t be able to handle the disruptive kids from super-damaged homes. I’m no disciplinarian, which is what school teachers have to be. Also family therapy counselors. And skilled passers-on of knowledge to boot. It’s a thankless job, and I already have one.

          Although disciplinarian, family counselor . . . those sound like attributes already possessed by . . . hmm, a judge, maybe?

        • When I taught, I took a different approach, because I don’t take in information well aurally. I think lectures are useless for most students. But most teachers lecture because that’s just what’s done. There have been so many innovative education thinkers over the years, it’s a shame that most teachers get so little exposure to them. I believe the perfect educational unit is one teacher/tutor and three students. More and people get lost; less and there is no synergy.

  3. I’m taking graduate math classes while tutoring Calculus, and I learn plenty from it. The main thing is seeing connections. When I took Calc., I didn’t really understand why limits shift inside continuous functions, or how a Riemann sum is the limit of a finite sum, or whatever else. Teaching it, I see better how all the things fit together. It also keeps me fresh on things that I may have forgotten but have to call back to in more advanced classes (Linear Algebra, especially).

    • It’s too bad you’re sick of teaching. You probably are an excellent teacher. But when one’s sick of something, one’s sick of it. Elizabeth, whose posts you’ve seen around here, is sick of local politics. She made an important difference, she’s sick of the grind.

      What you and her are doing — being brave enough to acknowledge you’re sick of something and taking the steps towards moving on — is so gutsy it deserves more praise than I can give.

      Take a second, if I may ask, and be proud. Of what you’ve done (if I hadn’t had the meanest, stupidest, most petty-minded math teacher my senior year, I would have stuck with math — up till then, I liked math) and what you’re trying to do.

      I don’t know you, you’re an Internet phantasm, you may be a rotten person. But doing something well is a real accomplishment. And choosing to try to do something else well is a mark of real courage.

      • I’m not sick of teaching, I was sick of teaching middle school students (and, to be honest, my supervisors were sick of me being there as well). I love teaching college students, because most of them actually want to be there. But one generally needs a doctorate to make a career out of that.

    • I have vague memories of that: thinking it was odd we were learning all this stuff about limits. Over the years, the idea of limits became so important — not just to math but to so much physics that I was doing. Part of it is also just letting it set in your mind. A lot of stuff just needs time. But it is also true that students will ask questions that you don’t know the answer to. Writing does the same thing. You can’t be foggy about a subject when you are explaining it to others.

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