I heard an interesting idea on one of the podcasts that Michael Pollan has been on to promote his new book. Pollan is a popular science journalist who has written a couple of very successful books on food and nutrition. I can’t be bothered to go back and transcribe the quote right now so I’m just going to paraphrase.

Basically, he says that people aren’t very interested in having ideas presented to them by the expert who’s got it all figured out and lectures them on what they should do, think or believe. Instead, it’s much more interesting to read from what he calls “ex-beginners”, laypeople and amateurs who have immersed themselves in a certain topic but who are still close enough to having been absolute beginners that they can empathise with their readers.

I completely agree with this and have felt it myself many times. It’s what makes blogs like chinesequest so engaging and motivating. Besides avoiding the curse of knowledge, I think there’s another important reason for this phenomenon: I believe very strongly that the idea of learning as a clinical acquisition of knowledge whereby facts get transferred from your text book into a person’s brain is extremely limited. Encouraging and motivating surroundings, a sufficient belief in one’s ability to succeed and other circumstances have an overwhelming effect on the outcome of any learning endeavor.

This idea is also encouraging to me as someone who has often felt that I have to master a topic before being qualified to share what I’ve learnt with others. Coming at it with the ethos of someone who shares their journey towards mastery, however, is not only not deceiving people into trusting someone they shouldn’t (when done authentically and conscientiously), it might in fact be the most interesting thing there is to write.