Oh, That’s Easy

“Oh, that’s easy – just wget the tarball, unzip it, chmod 0744 the shell script and ./install.”

“Oh, that’s easy – it’s a 4 chord song in the key of C, just follow along, you’ll pick it up really quick.”

“Oh, that’s easy – just dice some onions, brown the beef, and mix these spices, then sautee the whole thing with a few cloves of garlic.”

One of the most powerful, fascinating skills the human brain has is the ability to take fascinating, wonderful, complicated things and make us feel like they’re simple. We assimilate, absorb, consume the essence of an activity so that we transform from bumbling creatures unable to lift our own heads into multitasking heroes, performing incredible feats of coordination, calculation, and dexterity – and be unimpressed. When’s the last time you brushed your teeth and thought, “Wow, I’m really getting good at this!” or patted yourself on the back for having the coordination required to pat yourself on the back?

Okay, I got weird there for a second. Bringing it back:

This is a terribly important skill for us to have. If we, as a species, were unable to acclimate and develop new norms, we’d still be emotionally overwhelmed every time we saw fire – to say nothing of electricity, chemistry, music, and everything else we take for granted most days. It is vital to progress, invention, learning, and it’s a beautiful thing.

However, like everything else, we take this skill – our ability to take incredible things and normalize them – and we normalize it. This, too, is good, but it can have some consequences. The most significant is this: after we learn something, we quickly forget what it was like to not know it. We forget how to empathize with people who don’t know, and we rapidly begin assuming that most people also know everything we do, even though we had no idea what we’ve learned was a thing, not so long ago.

Here’s a trivial example: When I was in third grade, I was pretty good at arithmetic. I was always one of the first ones done multiplication table challenges, I got A’s on my test, and I was doing stuff in double digits (a big deal for a third grader!). One day, my teacher asked me to help another student who was struggling with multiplication. I went over to help, and after a few false starts, trying to explain how multiplication worked, I broke down in tears. I didn’t know how to explain arithmetic to my friend — I just did it. Four times three didn’t make twelve because I’d followed a sequence of steps to arrive at that answer. It just was twelve.

There are plenty of more complicated examples, like those I’ve listed at the beginning. As we develop mastery over a topic, especially one in our career or favorite hobby, we transition from “how do I” to “I bet I can” to “Oh, so that’s how” to “Oh, that’s easy.”

The important thing, which I’ve only learned much more recently, is how this affects the way we share our knowledge with others. It is good and important for each of us to develop mastery in skills, and be able to regard as easy things which were once mysteries. It is not so great to greet a new learner in that same skill with “Oh, that’s easy.” It is important to remember that some things are not inherently easy, but instead have been made easy by much practice, during which that same task was hard.

This is just a simple reminder. It’s not a clickbait-y, “here’s one thing everyone needs to stop doing” admonition. It’s not finger-pointing. I’m passing no judgment. But it’s worth remembering, from time to time, that many of the things you’re really, really good at today are things you used to be unable to do, and think about that when you get a chance to share it with someone.

How about you? What’s your “oh, that’s easy” from your profession or hobby? Have you done that to people before? Had it done to you? Let me know.

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