Daniel Boorstin wrote, “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge.” In other words, knowledge can be a subjective condition rather than a concrete accomplishment – a feeling or an intuition that we are sufficiently informed on a particular subject.
We like to think that we live in an age of limitless knowledge, and it’s easy to see why. Just look at all the sources for instantaneous information that didn’t exist 20 years ago – Twitter, mobile apps, newsfeeds and ever-more-sophisticated search capabilities. Short-form content and quick takes on just about anything are readily available, and most of us rely on them to stay on top of our industries and our worlds.
But the predominance of media sound bites, snippets and click bait headlines also present a threat to our depth of knowledge. That’s dangerous for anyone seeking to climb the ladder of success, since no amount of superficial knowledge adds up to expertise. In fact, surface-skimming can compromise authority for a couple of reasons. First, in the age of always-on media, chances are higher that whomever you speak with will have already heard the latest on any number of subjects; you’ll have to go deeper in order to make an impression. Second, the law of supply and demand works against industry leaders; now that everyone has endless access to knowledge, its value of has diminished, and the bar is higher for what qualifies as true insight. That means your blog articles, presentations, and even key professional conversations will have to meet a higher standard in order to stand out.
As for me, my relevance as a consultant, speaker, writer and media contributor hinges on my ability to bring dimension and a fresh perspective on a broad range of topics related to my industry (retail). My clients count on me to question clichés, bust myths and connect disparate ideas, so skimming the surface just won’t cut it. I’m often asked what I read and how I generally stay on top of things, so I’m sharing a few best practices that I follow, ones that help me delve deeper in my own quest for knowledge:
GIRL TO GREAT MANDATES
- Capture and connect – I spend a minimum of one hour each day sorting through various news stories and digitally “filing” ones that can be applied to my client work and preparation for upcoming speaking engagements and press inquiries. After trying out and scrapping various solutions, I’ve (finally!) found a platform that works well for me and allows me to easily retrieve specific snippets, log inspirations on my smart phone while traveling and, most importantly, to connect endless amounts of information to the themes that I’m currently tracking. To keep my system “clean and lean,” I read, date and tag information before filing it. Taking this discriminating (and yes, sometimes tedious) approach also ensures that I’m in-the-know on a wide range of topics. Double benefit!
- Consider the source – There is a big difference between knowing about something and hearing about it and not all information sources are created equal. Any time a major event happens in your industry, there will most likely be multiple (if not hundreds) of articles written about it. I make it a point to initially read at least three articles about a topic that collectively offer this ideal mix: one short-form, just-the-facts article, one comprehensive long-form article, and at least one editorial/opinion piece. I’m particularly fond of the latter because reading others’ informed opinions is a fantastic way to quickly gain exposure to all sides of an issue or topic. Listening to informed opinions is another short cut. The next time you hear yourself saying “I hadn’t heard about that!” in a conversation with someone you admire, follow up with “What’s your take?” Even if you don’t get fresh insight on the subject, you’ll build a bond. You can’t lose by going deeper in your professional conversations.
- Follow the action – I work in a fast-moving industry (which ones aren’t these days?), so taking a “one and done” approach to gathering information is short sighted. Being uninformed about how key dynamics are evolving is a sure way to get left behind. With my scaffolding already built (see #1 above), it’s easy for me to add updates on the topics that I’m following as part of my daily hunt. As the dates (and ideas) from previous items “expire,” out they go. Following this process also keeps me in-the-know about the evolution of various topics, not just the original story.
- Remember, context is king – Having one idea puts you on par with lots of other people. Connecting two ideas immediately distances you from the crowd. Three or more? Look out, here comes an expert! I used to think that focusing on super-specific information that directly related to my goals and clients (and, earlier in my career, my customers and employers) was the only way to build expertise. I’ve since realized that the more widely I read about other industries, personal interests and even fiction, the easier it is for me to connect ideas, especially in ways that go beyond what I call the “obvious and observational.” I’ve learned to trust that, with a steady flow of input, my brain (with the above processes and best practices as backup) will creatively connect many of the dots for me. Now I’m free to be as curious as can be and to truly enjoy building my knowledge base, drawing from enumerable sources.
A little bit of knowledge really can be a dangerous thing, whether you are applying for a job, going after a promotion, creating a presentation, writing a blog or forging a new relationship. On the other hand, setting up systems that support your deeper knowledge pays off big time, especially when just about everyone else is merely scratching the surface and relying on recall from there. Maintaining a depth of knowledge is a baseline if you are a speaker or writer (or if you’re aspiring to be one) and a killer differentiator and confidence-builder if you aren’t.
Isn’t that great?
I launched the GirlToGreat series at the urging of the many women I've mentored and informally encouraged over the years. In this series, I share tools and tactics born from my experience, not theory, that will help you get out of your own way, make better use of where you are right now, and ditch the insecurity that is at the root of cringe-worthy compromises and playing small. Learn more about GirlToGreat
I am the founder of retail strategy and training agency, Spieckerman Retail. I blog on retail at spieckermanretail.com, and am a professional speaker, author and retail positioning trainer. I conduct retail positioning workshops around the world that arm companies with powerful tools for pursuing high-volume programs and strategic partnerships.
To learn more about my women's leadership support and retail-focused presentations, training and advisement, ping me at carol@spieckermanretail.