Before Jimmy Fallon became the dapper host of NBC’s “The Tonight Show,” he was slovenly Nick Burns.
Fans of “Saturday Night Live” will remember Burns, one of Fallon’s recurring characters on the weekly sketch comedy show, as the condescending IT technician called in by frustrated office workers to repair a host of computer issues.
Faced with blank stares as he tries to explain why, for example, an email program won’t open an attachment, Burns shoves the afflicted worker aside, sits down in his seat, clacks a few keys and fixes the problem, all while snickering at the astounding ignorance of the people he’s trying to help.
You may recognize Nick Burns. There are a lot of people out there like him and not just in IT. In fact, you’re probably one yourself. I am, too. Maybe you don’t belittle your co-workers each time you help someone out, but you do have specialized knowledge or experience that makes you more like him than you might think.
What made Burns so recognizable as a comic figure was what economists and social psychologists have dubbed the curse of knowledge. When you know something, it’s hard to appreciate what it’s like to not know it.
During a presentation at the annual conference of the Society for Human Resource Management in June, Nicholas Epley, a professor at the University of Chicago and author of “Mindwise: Why We Misunderstand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want,” pointed to the curse as one of the biggest reasons we fail to understand and communicate effectively with one another.
We’re all experts on ourselves, he said, and because we possess that expertise on what we think and why we think it, we’re simply ill equipped to understand why others don’t see things the same way.
Name the topic and the examples of our sheer inability to understand each other’s point of view quickly becomes clear. How is it that your brother can in good conscience vote Democrat when you’re a staunch Republican? Why doesn’t everyone see that “Arrested Development” was the best TV comedy in a generation?
Facebook, Twitter and the like only make it worse, bringing an ever-expanding circle of seemingly incomprehensible beliefs and opinions ever closer. With the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign already in full swing, Twitter trolls and online activists are already banging away on those keys.
But politics and culture are largely realms of opinion. My likes and your likes don’t have to line up. But when it comes to hard facts and technical skills, the curse of knowledge still poses a problem.
Good teachers understand the complications the curse creates and instinctively counteract them. They continually ask questions and engage with learners to find out what they know. Within seconds, they can assess through a variety of visual and verbal cues whether someone gets it and adjust accordingly. They rarely assume everyone has the same level of knowledge or understands a concept at the same time.
If we’re lucky, a few of those teachers helped us through those moments when the Nick Burns of the world show up. But when we get to work, things get complicated. People hoard information as a source of power. Schedules and deadlines and projects shove learning to the side. Overcoming the curse of knowledge isn’t job No. 1 like it is at school.
So learning at work is more than simply making information more accessible and available. There’s a duty to break down the barriers to understanding that arise when one person possesses knowledge and the other doesn’t. There’s a duty to make connection and communication just as much a part of learning as curriculum and content. And it requires all of us to learn — and continue to learn — that not everyone is as expert as we are, especially when we are the topic.
Humility is a prerequisite for understanding, Epley told the audience. That’s a lesson Nick Burns never learned.