The Concept of Knowing

  • Sumo

"How do you know all this stuff?"

The question always give me pause. The "stuff" depends on the group inquiring. Most recently, it was one of my grad students during class. I was in the middle of showing how the commenting system Livefyre works, and the class gave a collective repetition of the question.

Explaining how I know about Livefyre is easy: I use it. I follow the company, and its developments, checking it open positions now and then to see where they might be headed. That lead to a discussion on competitive research, and how looking at what competitors are hiring for can tell you what they're planning. Are they hiring a new sales team to focus on a particular area of the country, or particular market segment? What does your research tell you about your product or company in relation to that segment? Are they hiring developers of a particular programming language? More marketing staff? Segmented marketing staff? Bigger push into social media?

Company websites offer a wealth of information about themselves, not just the products or services offered. Most look at public documents, press releases, and for public companies, filings. That tells you what they've done. The Careers page, or its equivalent, tells you where they are planning on going.

There was a collective "wow" as they scribbled notes or typed furiously on keyboards. I didn't think much of it at the time, and moved on, but the question of knowing remained unanswered. I pondered on the train ride home that night, pausing to consider that these grad students, by the nature of me standing in the front of the room, consider me an expert.

I will refute I am expert in anything, but it is implicit in the student-teacher relationship. I may not have called any of my teachers experts, but I often thought of them that way.

Yes. I'm stalling.

The concept of knowing.

How do I know all this stuff?

The simple answer: I read.

I've learned that is not a sufficient answer because it prompts a second question: what do I read?

The simple answer: anything I can get my hands on.

The pattern of answering questions with simple answers leads to a circle of repetition, an annoyance. I've tried deflecting, dismissing as there are plenty of people who know more than I do, and that, honestly, anyone can learn this "stuff," but that method is also ineffective. People call up examples and, without intervention, we have ourselves an argument.

The better answer to "How do I know all this stuff?" is Curiosity.

I'm curious, and it gets the better of me. Asking questions generally resulted in blank stares, so I sought answers myself. Libraries. Bookstores. Now, the Internet is included in the mix. I read blogs, books, articles, published research and, occasionally, unpublished research. Most searches start with the Internet and SSRN, but I've always found wandering around bookstores soothing, and it is rare I leave with less than three books. The Internet and Amazon have simply made it easier for me to consume knowledge at an alarming rate. I will finish a book, download and start a new one before I get up to my parents house for a visit.

Satisfying my curiosity, then, is an established process. A process, it turns out, I have done all of my life. It is normal to me, so when that question is posed, it gives me pause. I am forced to think through my normal process.

There's an additional pause as the reaction to my explanation is unknown, but past data suggests it will fall somewhere on the scale of a polite "interesting" to the more brash "fucking weirdo." That scale seems to be a relic of grade school and high school, though, as when I explain my process, I end up fielding more questions or, oddly, they ask for my advice.

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