Domain Knowledge vs. Intelligence

“I feel like I’m not intelligent. I don’t know about X.”

This is a nonsensical statement, but one that haunts many people. They conflate intelligence with domain knowledge, and feel stupid/dumb/not-very-smart. And they let that feeling influence their future actions, and hold them back.


Domain Knowledge: How Much You’ve Learned

This is knowledge about a particular subject. You could know a lot about bee keeping, or musical notation, calculus, or how to manage a flooring company, or the correct way to polish a sword. All of these are different domains of knowledge.

I know a lot about JavaScript programming, diet and fitness, Star Wars and Garfield trivia, Japanese history, and a host of other subjects. But there are far more that I don’t know anything about! Theoretical physics, space travel, hair braiding, product distribution networks for business, etc. This encompasses both theoretical knowledge, as well as the practical.

Just because you lack domain knowledge is an area doesn’t make you stupid. This is one of those basic ideas that should promulgated more; domain knowledge says little about your intelligence, especially when you are young.


Intelligence: The Rate At Which You Learn

Intelligence is your ability to learn, see patterns, and figure things out. It will influence your rate of knowledge acquisition, and how quickly you can build domain knowledge. But it’s not domain knowledge.

Someone who’s smart can figure new things out pretty quickly. They can learn new domain knowledge quickly, see connections and patterns, and pick things up.

Intelligence will influence how fast you accumulate domain knowledge. But this takes time for everyone.


Young People

I meet a fair number of young (teens and early 20’s) people who think they are stupid. They don’t know about software development/how to create good art/investing/etc. They see what professionals with decades of experience are able to accomplish, and get depressed.

This is painful, particularly because they’re making an unequal comparison. The person they’re comparing themselves to usually has years or decades more experience/time spent accumulating domain knowledge. Mostly, they aren’t stupid; they just don’t have years of experience and knowledge under their belt. WHICH IS FINE!!! But they have to know it’s perfectly fine to be at their level now, as long as they are learning and improving.


The Intersection: Compounding Effects

If you keep learning, you’ll keep building more domain knowledge. As you gain more domain knowledge, you will have more material from which to observe patterns and make predictions. And if you are more intelligent, you’ll learn more, faster, which facilitates your ability to fit new knowledge into your existing structures, which further allows new meanings to come forth.

An Example: Learning about the Battle Of Midway is interesting, but if you know more about WWII it takes on new meaning and context, and if you know more about military history and the advent of aircraft carriers it takes on still more meaning, etc.


So, What Now?

Not knowing is not bad. But feeling like you can’t learn new things is the real kicker, the real poison.

Especially in your teens and early 20’s, there’s so much to learn!! A lot of other people have invented, build, and created cool and beautiful things in the history of the planet. The bar is pretty high. You don’t have to know know much, or feel bad about not knowing. Focus on improving, since you have a hell of a lot of potential.

Trust in your ability to learn, and start somewhere. You can only get better.

…we can say that Muad’Dib learned rapidly because his first training was in how to learn. And the first lesson of all was the basic trust that he could learn. It is shocking to find how many people do not believe they can learn, and how many more believe learning to be difficult. Muad’Dib knew that every experience carries its lesson.

~ from “The Humanity of Muad’Dib” by the Princess Irulan (Dune)

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