I have a weird career. I am good at explaining difficult things to willing people. Let’s break that down:
- Difficult things
- To willing people
There’s a myth that people who are good at doing something are equally good at explaining it. That’s wrong. If you’ve ever talked to someone who’s been immersed in some topic or technology, and hasn’t been forced to explain it publicly, you know what I mean.
There’s also this Einstein quote:
“If you can’t explain something simply you don’t understand it well enough.”
First of all, Albert Einstein never said this. Second of all: if he did, that would be pretty silly coming from him. Try reading any of Einstein’s papers or lectures and tell me if they’re explaining their topic “simply”.
No, explaining is a skill in and of itself. It doesn’t just automatically follow from understanding. I still have a lot to learn, even after doing this for about 15 years.
Even simple topics can be hard to explain, sometimes. It depends on things like who you’re explaining to, and whether they are primed to accept the thing or deny it. I have huge respect for people who can explain “simple” things like numbers to little kids.
I specialize in complexity because I enjoy it. I started with explaining search engines, then I moved to explaining online marketing. Then HTML5, various new APIs, markov chains, fuzzy logic, a new programming language, and on and on. Now I’m writing this book.
Obviously, explaining anything to people who are unwilling is harder than the opposite. I believe it is also a completely different problem. You spend much more of your energy trying to persuade the audience that they should listen and learn. This, again, is a skill in and of itself, and I have huge respect for anyone who is good at that. Think high school teachers.
By focusing on the willing people, I can spend more time and energy on the explaining itself. I can assume there’s interest in the topic. I am free to go more in-depth, and I don’t need to sugar-coat anything.
This book is, in some ways, a culmination of my efforts in these past 15 years. I have a lot of deliciously difficult things to explain to you.