There are a set of rules which govern how our world works. In the physical sciences, these rules are precise and map directly from inputs to outputs. In the social sciences, these rules are approximations and produce a general mapping from inputs to outputs.
For example, force = mass * acceleration is a physical science rule, while the input of being kind to others making them more likely to like you as an output is a social science rule.
If the rules that govern a particular context are widely known, there are a lot of people who will be able to apply those rules. As a result, the returns to applying the rule will decline due to competition.
It’s the rules that aren’t widely known that produce the greatest returns for those who identify and apply them.
As humans, we’re a hierarchical species. In the majority of our interactions, there’s an explicitly stated or implicitly assumed power structure that governs the dynamics of the interaction.
However, in addition to differences in our relative power, there are also differences in our relative knowledge about an issue. And these dimensions are generally negatively correlated.
Specifically, the more power you have, the more things you tend to be responsible for. As a result, you can’t be as immersed into any one thing as someone with less power. So the person with less power often has more knowledge about the issue than the person with more power.
If you’re in a position of power, you benefit from setting aside your powerful status to draw out as much knowledge as you can from your more knowledgeable counterpart.
If you’re in a position of knowledge, you benefit from setting aside your hierarchical instincts to make the important contributions that you are positioned to provide to your more powerful counterpart.
When someone asks you for your thoughts on something, sometimes you’re knowledgeable about the topic and can answer confidently.
However, many times you don’t know about the topic, or even if you do your thoughts aren’t sufficiently well formed to carry valuable insights for the questioner.
What do you do in this case?
Most of the time, most people choose to feign knowledge. This comes from seeing a lack of knowledge and informed views on a specific topic as a weakness which should therefore be concealed.
While this behavior is observed most often in domains where there is significant uncertainty and therefore not a single right answer, it also takes place in domains with a clear single correct answer. Business and politics are examples of the former. The range of responses you get when asking for directions to a specific location is an example of the latter.
In fact, saying “I don’t know enough about this topic to provide an informed and valuable answer”, or simply “I don’t know” is a sign of strength, not weakness. The reason is that there are too many different subject matters and too much knowledge being continuously created within each subject matter for any one of us to know and have informed views on multiple topics.
What we don’t know is far greater than what we do.
So if someone, including yourself, never says “I don’t know” no matter what you ask them, you can be sure that some of what they’re telling you isn’t sufficiently well informed to be valuable.
There’s a saying that you’re the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with. The exact impact of the 5 people you spend the most time with on you is unlikely to be as simple as an average function, and it will differ from person to person. However, I think that the saying is directionally correct.
The saying explains why I spend so much time on Twitter. It’s pretty much the only social media platform where I’m active. I spend 2-3 hours a day on it and the content sites it links to. Here’s the reason why.
If you think about the most informed people in the world on any given topic, it’s very unlikely that each of these people are in your physical proximity and are your personal acquiantances. No offense to anyone’s personal connections, but since you can only get to know so many people in person, chances are that the most knowledgeable people in the world on a given topic are outside of your inner circle. This is true no matter where you live and whose company you keep.
In the past, you could only access the thoughts of these people through books, if they ever wrote them. Now, with Twitter, many of these people share what they’re reading and thinking about with you on a daily basis. Knowledgeable people are often driven to share their knowledge with the rest of the world, and Twitter has emerged as the primary outlet where they do so.
Granted, you’d learn a lot more by spending more time with someone in person than by following them on Twitter. People don’t share all their thoughts on Twitter and their real life persona may be different than that which comes across from their tweets.
However, Twitter provides tremendous reach. Rather than be limited by the in person knowledge you gain from the 5 people you spend the most time with, you can inform your thinking through the more selective knowledge of tens of people.
Insights emerge not only from going very deep in a specific discipline but also from establishing connections between seemingly disparate high-level thoughts across different disciplines.
Now back to Twitter.