Knowing things is a curse

JHocoaching, continual learning, Cool, olympic weightlifting, training, Xplore CrossFit0 Comments

One of my favorite things about CrossFit is the magnificent effect it has had on helping people to fall in love with barbells. Glassman didn’t come up with anything new, but the number of people who have gained a genuine appreciation for these decades old practices makes me feel warm inside. Whether you are a fan of the slow, or the fast lifts we all share a general affection for lifting heavy things. Teaching people to lift those heavy things has some interesting challenges. I remember a point when the snatch didn’t make sense. I remember thinking it was stupid in fact. Much like a middle school student declaring algebra will never come up in “real life” so what was the point. How exactly is this functional? But now I not only love to do it I read books on it and watch videos online. I have made great strides but I am far from mastery as an athlete or as a coach. Communicating the subtle nuances of something so complex and yet so simple to help move someone else forward in these movements can be mind bending. I think an interesting study can shed some light on why.

In 1990, a Stanford University graduate student in psychology named Elizabeth Newton illustrated the curse of knowledge by studying a simple game in which she assigned people to one of two roles: “tapper” or “listener.” Each tapper was asked to pick a well-known song, such as “Happy Birthday,” and tap out the rhythm on a table. The listener’s job was to guess the song.
Over the course of Newton’s experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Listeners guessed only three of the songs correctly: a success ratio of 2.5%. But before they guessed, Newton asked the tappers to predict the probability that listeners would guess correctly. They predicted 50%. The tappers got their message across one time in 40, but they thought they would get it across one time in two. Why?
When a tapper taps, it is impossible for her to avoid hearing the tune playing along to her taps. Meanwhile, all the listener can hear is a kind of bizarre Morse code. Yet the tappers were flabbergasted by how hard the listeners had to work to pick up the tune.
The problem is that once we know something—say, the melody of a song—we find it hard to imagine not knowing it. Our knowledge has “cursed” us. We have difficulty sharing it with others, because we can’t readily re-create their state of mind.

We forget what it is like to not know, and this can profoundly challenge us as teachers, and as students. Fortunately we are playing the long game. This is a lifestyle. We can spend the rest of our lives chasing perfection and if we get just pretty good along the way we call that a win. So take this nugget and use it or forget it. Well, you can’t really forget it completely. You know about the curse now and therefore you are cursed by default. Everyday seek to uncover greatness in yourself and in others. Patiently.

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