Continuous thinking: Essay: the duality of knowledge


Everybody loves experts, at least I know I do! I love being able to toss almost every single question or problem to one or more experts in order to gain new insights and understandings.

In most cases, your knowledge network really grows exponentially as you age. Knowledge networks should be cherished and nurtured, as they will allow you to accelerate your personal knowledge growth in an exponential rate.

But, there is a catch: can you remember the last time you disagreed with an expert ?

There is an common acronym on the internet: "KIP", which is short for "Knowledge is power" - it is also the Dutch word for "chicken", but that is completely irrelevant in this essay - . In most cases, I tend to agree, but in some I do not... Here is an explanation:


The duality of knowledge, it is all about the dots...

Fact: Knowledge is power, but it can also hold you back.

What was the last time you woke up with an answer to a problem you had been trying to solve the day before ? Why are we able to see a (usually straightforward) solution after a good night of sleep ? In my experience problem solving is about connecting the dots. You start with an initial path, and you grow this path until you find a viable solution. You choose these paths based on what you learned in previous similar situations.

That is in fact the essence of our brain, you can consider it a huge amount of dots with a lot of paths between them; some are very wide highways, and some are just very tiny paths, who merely exist. As we take a path more and more, it grows and expands naturally, so we are inclined to take this route even more.

Sometimes you start of with the wrong dots, and are unable to reach your final destination on your problem solving path. Ideas usually evolve quite naturally, like in a genetic algorithm, but the problem is solutions converge slowly or in a wrong direction if you started with the wrong ancestors.

I like to consider a good night of sleep a simple way to change those ancestors, which enables you to get started with a completely new path.


Dr. Evil and your guardian angel can alter your path.

As a person, we are what we experience. In our brains, associations between neurons (the dots) grow stronger as we experience something. This is why experiments like Pavlov's dog are possible. We are actually conditioned to make associations more and more as we experience them...

Now, think about cause and consequence. What if we turn this reasoning around ? Can we change the way we think ?


"Yes we can!" - Barack Obama

Yes, we can change the way we think, there is a thing we call NLP (Neuro-linguistic programming) which does exactly that. By choice of words one can actually influence your own brain paths, or the path of a person we are talking to. There is a vast amount of literature available on this subject, and I urge you to take a look at it. It will help you to develop a metacognition (i.e. think about what and how you think), which will allow you to grow as a person.

NLP is a powerful technique; cult leaders and hard sellers are employing these all the time to get what they want. But you should not consider this a pure "Dr. Evil" approach, as there are multiple usages for a hammer.


All this "Blah", and I still do not have a clue why knowledge has a duality to it ?

We are conditioned to connect the dots in a certain way. The fact that mankind is able to do (almost) impossible things, is because of this knowledge, the accumulation of experience. Knowledge transfer is making the group bigger than the sum of its individual parts. But sometimes it does not...

Here is a quote which I love a lot, which covers the essence of this essay:

  “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” - Henry Ford

Think about it! A lot of the progress mankind made was due to the fact that those great thinkers questioned the existing knowledge, and were able to connect the dots in a way nobody had ever been able to connect the dots before... 

Knowledge as a restriction... also known as "the conventional approach".

In most cases knowledge is a big advantage, in fact, I would even say a huge advantage. However, there are also numerous amounts of opportunities where we choose a wrong or less efficient solution to a problem, simple because we are conditioned to do so.

This is why you can usually see conflicts emerge between a junior and a senior; the senior has acquired a lot of experience in a certain field, so he knows the pitfalls and best ways to provide a solution to a problem, so he tries to teach a junior a conventional way to approach a problem. A junior however, usually need to make these faults on his/her own in order to realize why things are done according to a certain convention.

However, sometimes the junior finds a new path. This is exactly where great new insights are born. All of a sudden a junior connects the dots in a different way, and "BOOM !!", we gain a new insight.

So while convention is good in most of the cases, in order to make progress we actually need to change those conventions.

A few simple examples:

  • most consultants will only suggest the solutions they know or favor
  • thinking out of the box usually helps you to be really successful in business


A recent example: software architecture.

One of the main contexts where you can apply this concept all the time, is in software architecture.

There are usually two opposites in this context:

  • The extreme architect: he wants to have the architecture of the application completely abstracted from the domain (=business logic)
  • The extreme pragmatic: he just wants to be as efficient as possible, i.e. every single line written should have maximum business value
While both have its merits, I think we should be able to find a proper consensus between the two. You should grow a software architecture as you progress your app, and start of with the simplest thing that could possibly work, but in a reasonable way. As your complexity increases, your architecture needs to evolve as well, since you will otherwise blow your maintenance budget due to unmaintainable code.

Finding a proper balance between architecture and pragmatism has proven a really delicate subject, and I assume it will be forever. However, it is my personal belief that both extremes should be avoided (no architecture vs over-architected apps).


Knowledge is important; cherish it and nurture it. But always keep in mind that the conventional path might not always be the best one. Sometimes an alternative point of view can help you to put things in a new perspective.

(In fact, my consultancy model is based on the exact opposite, so if you need a new point of view for your business, just contact me.)

Finally, here is another one of my favorite quotes:

"I can't understand why people are frightened of new ideas. 
I'm frightened of the old ones." - John Cage



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