Knowledge [Transfer] is Power
Helping vs. Gatekeeping
Welcome to Polymathic Being, a place to explore counterintuitive insights across multiple domains. These essays take common topics and explore them from different perspectives and disciplines and, in doing so, come up with unique insights and solutions. Fundamentally, a Polymath is a type of thinker who spans diverse specialties and weaves together insights that the domain experts often don’t see.
Today's topic pushes back on the problematic trope of “Knowledge is Power.” We’ll explore a couple of examples of the terrible behaviors and gatekeeping that occur when people follow this mantra. Then we’ll unlock the true power that leverages humanity’s superpower as social learners so that we all can continue to grow.
The other day, a fellow on LinkedIn shared this post that reads:
“Uhhh — should I say something?
The woman sitting next to me on this plane is a publicist, and she's describing her media-pitching strategy to her husband.
Of course she has no idea that, right next to her, there's an editor of a national magazine. 😂
My decision: Keeping my mouth SHUT!
Reason 1: It's a plane. Nobody needs more people talking.
Reason 2, more importantly: I love giving solicited advice — but I'm very careful about unsolicited advice. I mean, just because you have something to say, that doesn't mean people want to hear it.
Sometimes, the most generous act is NOT speaking.
What do you think?
For those who DO want advice — my newsletter, One Thing Better, offers one way to improve your work each week!”
It’s the behavior I touched on with my own post over a month prior where I’m constantly frustrated by people hoarding information for power or self-gain versus sharing to help others.
“I'm torn on this one because I see too many people use this as a position to exert power from. They know the answer, but they hold it and then throw this sort of thing back in your face. They want you to come and beg them for the answer.
So I just cut them out of the solution and let the team solve it without them. I don't need you if you aren't willing to stand up and prove your point.”
There’s an old axiom that “Knowledge is Power.” Yet in my experience that is such a limited power. It’s also the power of dominance, not prestige. Joseph Henrich captures the difference so well in his book The Secret of Our Success. (And since I keep referencing it recently yes, I’m enjoying reading it and there are a TON of lessons to learn) Namely the behavior in that LinkedIn post is one of dominance and not prestige. It’s the information hoarder who is self-aggrandizing and ego-centric with hubristic pride and is, I’d wager, very sensitive to perceived threats of his status.
Prestige vs. Dominance involves sharing and helping those around you, often without any expectation of reciprocation. It’s the free exchange of ideas so that others can benefit even if they’ve got nothing to give… yet.
We are social learners and we learn by watching and mimicking. So, when someone hoards knowledge and tries to hold power, what you see is a stifling of learning. You can see this manifest in the actual body posture where there’s no longer awe but fear, and there’s no gazing and learning, there’s avoidance and just doing.
I’ve always disliked the ‘knowledge is power’ trope. What I’ve found much more powerful is Knowlege Transfer. I had a senior executive once describe me as “A super-integrator.” She said that if she could only go to one person, I’d be the one to call since I was connected into everything else and would know who the best person was to get the right knowledge from.
I took the compliment as more of a challenge to aspire to in the future. It’s honestly become part of my North Star of how I want to learn. It’s the underpinning of my aspiration as a Polymath. Primarily to help unlock insights across multiple domains and disciplines and share them freely and learn from everyone as I do it.
Most importantly, it helps avoid the gatekeeping and sycophancy that is currently limiting our ability to solve the complex problems we face. Fundamentally, this ‘empire building’ and creation of silos of experience continues to fractionalize fields that should be sharing more freely. It’s an underpinning of Functional Stupidity and a clear indication of myopic expertise. (It’s also likely why magazines are failing so spectacularly when an editor plays that same game)
Imagine what might have happened if, instead, the conversation went something like this:
“Hi, I don’t mean to intrude, but I overheard your media pitch. I’m the editor of Entrepreneur Magazine. Would you be interested in some feedback?
And then providing some helpful feedback to help make the pitch better. Then imagine if he went a step further:
Also, If you’re interested, I know a couple people who I can introduce you too. This pitch might be interesting to them or they might have others in their network. Would you mind if I shared this?
Imagine how that could help elevate and create a network effect so much larger than himself. That’s the power of knowledge transfer. Instead of hoarding information, you become the nexus for a much larger network of knowledge.
Even better, what if it saved a life? That’s what happened recently in Austin Texas where a woman, who was a dermatologist, approached a man with unsolicited advice, and told him that the spots on his face were cancer, motivating him to go in and get them removed likely saving him a much worse outcome.
In a world expecting dominance, it’s helpful to know there’s a real superpower out there that feeds into our key skill of social learning. It’s knowledge sharing. Open, honest, and free.
People will still think you’re trying to gain an advantage, and they're not wrong. The advantage I look for is access to so much more knowledge and wisdom than I could possibly hoard myself. It’s what Newton said:
“If I have seen further it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.”
We don’t need to be the giants, we just need to figure out how to network all the giants together, avoid the gatekeeping, and help everyone around us achieve amazing things through knowledge transfer.
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Further Reading from Authors I really appreciate
I highly recommend the following Substacks for their great content and complementary explorations of topics that Polymathic Being shares.
Artificial Intelligence Made Simple Great round-up of AI topics in the media and tech reporting.
Techno Sapien Business Leadership Insights
Never Stop Learning Great Life Tips and Tricks
One Useful Thing Practical AI
The Muse Fun, Witty, Insight
Out of CuriosityGreat little nuggets to learn from