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The Curse of Knowledge

by Nathan Kontny
Photo by Joao Tzanno

You probably already know this. But, I'm probably wrong.

One of the hardest struggles anyone has in their business is telling others what they sell.

It's harder than coming up with ideas. We're full of ideas. It's harder than finding a big market for your business. More leads won't help if you can't talk to the few people who've already found you. And we all know how hard building really great products is, but you're probably building the wrong product anyways, if you haven't figured out how to talk to anyone about it first.

But, I have a strong feeling you don't even realize you have this struggle.

Like many families with young kids, our daughter loves storytime with me and my wife. First, we read a book, often a second. But, then she also requires a whole story told from the top of our heads - from each of us! Our bedtime routine is long :) But I love it.

One problem though. I ran out of stories.

For work I tell stories. On my personal YouTube and Medium accounts I tell stories. Sometimes at the end of the day, I have nothing left to tell my daughter off the top of my head. I'm storied out.

So I started just telling her my favorite movie and TV show stories. I'd tell her the plots of Toy Story and Star Wars. We've done the whole Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy.

Her favorite is the plot of Ferris Bueller's Day Off. We've done that one all the way through about 5 times now. (Lord help me when she's in high school.)

It's a ton of fun having her eager to hear these stories. Even if they aren't my own creations. At least she gets to enjoy some stories that I've deeply enjoyed.

But here's something that's really surprised me about this routine.

In 1990, Elizabeth Newton was a PHD student in psychology and crafted a simple and surprisingly interesting experiment.

She had participants tap a tune on a table for a partner to guess. Newton then asked the "tappers" how many of them think they've successfully conveyed the tune in their head to their "listeners". 1 in 2 tappers were sure they did.

That's not how things turned out at all.

In reality, only 1 in 40 listeners were able to guess the correct tune being tapped out.

What happened here? Egocentricism.

the inability to differentiate between self and other

Experiment after experiment have shown this effect in all aspects of our lives. As children. As adults sending emails. We suck at realizing people don't already know what we know. It's the curse of knowledge.

Being a writer, marketer, vlogger, I give a lot of people advice and share a lot of stories about my life and work. But I wasn't telling anyone about this movie plot thing I did with my kid. Why would I? It's such a stupid simple idea, I'm sure everyone knew it.

But I discovered when I would matter-of-factly mention the routine, I kept hearing folks say: "Woah. What a great idea! I'm going to steal that for bedtime tonight." And I kept hearing that.

I was overconfident people had already figured out a simple idea like this. I thought people knew the tune in my head. And in that lesson I see how overconfident I might be in many other things I've assumed other people already know.

I saw it again at a hospital recently. My father had a stroke. Thank goodness his recovery is going well right now and he's a ton better. But months ago, when he was discharged, we were lost. I couldn't believe how little the hospital prepared us for the difficult recovery process at home. It seemed as if the nurses and doctors, these pros at their craft, just assumed we all knew how to care for this person who'd undergone a massive health problem. They were egocentric. They'd forgotten what it was like not to know all this stuff already in their heads.

I see way too many of us behave like that hospital.

We communicate with our customers like they already know everything about everything. We joke around that confused customers should RTFM, but they probably don't even realize you've written a manual. We write website content that assumes someone knows what we do with just a headline, some esoteric text, and a big BUY BUTTON.

Why don't more people convert on our websites or buy our products after hearing our pitches? Often it has less to do with how well your product works, and it has everything to do with folks having no idea what you're tapping out.

P.S. If you're looking for more good, affordable help building or marketing your projects, please reach out. We've been doing this for two decades. We'd love to help.

Nathan Kontny is the CTO of Rockstar Coders. Previously: CEO of Highrise, 2 time Y Combinator alum, created Draft. You should follow him on YouTube: here.

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