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29 Apr

There are two kinds of kids…

Today, let’s talk about the difference between tacit and explicit knowledge.

Tacit knowledge is like the knowledge you use to ride a skateboard or a bicycle: it’s complex, intuitive, and hard to put into words. You could try articulating a bunch of tips around how to learn it, but no one will be able to learn how to ride a bicycle just by reading your tips. They will have to ride the bicycle and fall down a few times in the process in order to learn it. There's an irreducible complexity to riding a bicycle that only shows up in the act of riding a bicycle in the real world.

Explicit knowledge, on the other hand, is clear and concrete and transferable. One can apply it verbatim and find it useful. A good example of this is syntax of a programming language or a tutorial on how to design an audience set in Facebook Ads Manager. One can simply follow instructions and get the desired result, without external context playing any part.

The difference is that riding a bicycle is learning a process, while learning how to use Facebook Ads manager is learning a tool. Tools exist in isolation, while processes that they're a part of, do not.

Sadly, the vague and fuzzy nature of tacit knowledge makes it vastly underappreciated.

Explicit knowledge is verifiable, concrete, and transferable, which also makes it powerful. But that doesn't mean that knowledge that cannot be made objective with words is any less powerful. Explicit scientific knowledge has been the key to a lot of our progress, but we wouldn't have been able to accrue those scientific insights if it weren't for people's ability to generate hypotheses — and skill at generating hypotheses is absolutely tacit.

In the book Why Information Grows, author Cesar Hidalgo explains how products give us more than just the physical item; they also provide access to the knowledge and skills used to create them. The ability to turn our thoughts and imagination (tacit know-how) into physical products (explicit knowledge) is essential for creative expression.

“... products give us access to the practical uses of the knowledge and knowhow residing in the nervous systems of other people.”

For example, when we are buying toothpaste we are not simply buying paste in a tube. Instead, we are buying access to the practical uses of the creativity of the person who invented toothpaste, along with all the scientific and process knowledge informing its production and distribution.

A musician records her music as a way to perfect her art, but also as a way of creating copies of her mind that can be shared with others and that can survive her. Without these copies her talents would be trapped in her body, inaccessible to others.

“We crystallize imagination to make copies of our thoughts and share them with others. This makes crystallizing imagination the essence of creative expression.”

However, he warns us against conflating our ability to crystallize tacit know-how into products with our ability to merely verbally articulating ideas.

“Talking about toothpaste does not help you clean your teeth, just as talking about the chemistry of gasoline will not fill up your car with gas. It is the toothpaste’s embodiment of the practical uses of knowledge, knowhow, and imagination, not a narrative description of them, that endows other people with those practical uses. Without this physical embodiment the practical uses of knowledge and knowhow cannot be transmitted.”

Products help improve our lives by giving us access to the knowledge and skills of others. This idea can also help us better understand wealth, as it comes from our ability to use and share information.

Our ability to crystallize imagination into products is the essence of wealth creation: products and the markets they inhabit don't just make us richer, but also wiser, as they connect us with the knowledge and creativity of our entire species.

The difference between explicit and tacit knowledge reminds me of two kinds of kids who play with LEGO.

Usually, LEGO sets come in a box with instructions on how to build the particular thing printed on the front of the box — be it a car, a spaceship, a castle… whatever. And there are kids who build according to these instructions — staying limited to them — and those who don't.

If you are the kid who builds with instructions, you will often learn a neat engineering mechanism like a pulley or a lever system or, say, a gearbox design. And once you've finished building, you will now be better equipped to make your own designs by using the techniques and mechanisms you learned while building the thing the LEGO set was intended for.

You will be a more flexible and competent designer, better able to make the LEGO pieces come together in the way you want, using your newfound knowledge of pulley systems, levers, and gearboxes. You learned how the fundamental building blocks or sub-systems of a machine work explicitly, but whatever you go on to build now using those building blocks will be based out of a tacit understanding how to rearrange these building blocks or sub-systems to create novel products.

And I would say that much of the fun of playing with LEGO or Mechanix sets is building your own unique and novel designs, experimenting and iterating rapidly once you know what the LEGO pieces are capable of doing when put in the right arrangements.

Likewise, in life, there are two kinds of problems: adaptive and technical.

Adaptive problems require experimentation, novel strategies, or new ways of thinking and being; they’re problems containing “unknown unknowns” and are often opaque in addition to being difficult. Technical problems may be equally difficult, but their difficulty lies in execution — where the path to the solution is known or knowable and does not need to be discovered.

Building a bicycle is a technical problem with tonnes of playbooks available on how to make one. Riding a bicycle is an adaptive problem where only the rough path to the solution is known, but it isn't foolproof and you will never know if that solution works for you unless you put yourself on a physical bicycle.

And it is precisely in adaptive and complex domains that explicit knowledge can often create the illusion of knowing. They can lead to surface explanations that are catchy and memorable but prevent you from noticing relevant contextual stuff that you do not understand yet but should.

Simple techniques and how-tos are explicit knowledge that is very useful as simple building blocks in a complex job. But don't make the mistake of reducing them for the job itself. For example, learning how to create audience sets on Facebook ads manager doesn't automatically make one a great performance marketer. For that, a deep understanding of segmentation and consumer preferences is needed: something that is tacit and can only be developed via experimentation and observation.

This is also the difference between a mechanic and a good automobile engineer.

A mechanic can only troubleshoot a vehicle insofar as the problem is within their mental library of problem-solution sets. Not knowing the first principles or building blocks of energy, electricity, and thermodynamics, they are often ill-equipped to solve problems they haven't faced yet and don't have a playbook for.

In contrast, a good engineer knows the fundamental mechanisms that make a car work and then based on that knowledge, is now equipped to solve yet-unsolved problems.

A mechanic knows solutions in isolation; an engineer on the other hand has the ability to crystallize patterns and apply them to novel contexts.

As you move up the career ladder, more and more of the value you bring to the table will be specific and tacit, not explicit.

Your skills won't be easily transferable or teachable, but they will be learnable — provided one is willing to put in the attention and effort you have into your domain over the years. Tacit know-how that operates in context will be far more useful and valuable than explicit knowledge that stands in isolation.

Frameworks are explicit, but how to apply the right framework to the right context and problem is tacit know-how. Anyone with a textbook can learn the former, but to learn the latter needs constant exposure to real world problems.

One may have a really good vocabulary, but may still be bad at selling. They may not know what words to use in what context and how to use them to make a great sales pitch. Vocabulary is explicit knowledge, being a good salesperson is tacit know-how.

Such tacit know-how only makes itself explicit in the final outcomes you produce in collaboration with the unique circumstances and context you inhabit — be it in terms of building an efficient sales machine or designing a beautiful product.

And it is crucial to be aware of the difference. Because it is tacit know-how that makes you irreplaceable and builds a career moat, not advice that can be put into textbooks and bullet lists.

It is the difference between the ability to follow recipes versus the ability to create them.

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