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Do You Know What You Don’t Know?

You probably don't know as much as you think you do. When put to the test, most people find they can't explain the workings of everyday things they think they understand.

Don't believe me? Find an object you use daily (a zipper, a toilet, a stereo speaker) and try to describe the particulars of how it works. You're likely to discover unexpected gaps in your knowledge. In psychology, we call this cognitive barrier the illusion of explanatory depth. It means you think you fully understand something that you actually don't.

We witness this all the time with the use of buzz words (think “strategic,” “streamline,” etc.).

While often used, the meaning of these words is usually unclear and masks gaps in our knowledge, “serving as placeholders that gloss concepts we don't fully understand.”

These words are similar to Aphorisms in the sense that they stifle informed debate — you're expected to get the gist of what people mean and move on.

For example, several years ago, I attended a corporate meeting where the vice president spoke about streamlining business practices in the coming year. During the talk, executives around the room nodded in agreement. Afterward, though, many of them discussed what streamlining actually meant. None of the people who had nodded in agreement could exactly define the mechanics of how to streamline a business practice.

One tip:

Explain concepts to yourself as you learn them. Get in the habit of self-teaching. Your explanations will reveal your own knowledge gaps and identify words and concepts whose meanings aren't clear.

Still curious? The Feynman Technique is designed to overcome the illusion of explanatory depth and help you actually understand.