Making money versus making knowledge

I’ve spent the past three years doing two very different things. As CTO of AnswerDash, my goal was to make money. As an Associate Professor at the University of Washington, my goal was to make knowledge. What’s the difference?

In my experience, making money is fundamentally about relating to people. To convince anyone to give you money, you have to understand their needs, their desires, their fears, and their anxieties. If you’re marketing to them, you have to find words, images, and experiences that provoke these emotions and stir them to action. If you’re selling to them, you have to understand them interpersonally and find a way to influence their behavior through your words and actions. And if you’re designing product for them, you have to envision experiences that change their life in a dramatic enough way that they’re willing to give you time or money. Making money is fundamentally about changing people’s behavior by understanding their emotions.

In contrast, making knowledge is fundamentally about understanding things that are much more abstract: nature, truth, reality, humanity. To make knowledge, you have to understand how the world works, how people works, how society works. And attaining this understanding doesn’t involve having to know any people in particular or how their emotions work. Instead, you need to understand ideas, what makes good ones, how to come up with them, evaluate them, critique them, explain them. Making knowledge feels like walking around in the dark, looking around for the light switch, until you stumble upon it, fumble to flip it, and suddenly everything is clear. Making knowledge is fundamentally about bring clarity to chaos.

Now, some people who make money might argue that they’re making knowledge too. Certainly anyone in a large, well-resourced company, investigating future products is creating new know-how. And I actually believe that many people in companies are making the same discoveries that researchers are. What’s different, however, is that those discoveries are not expressed and they are not shared as often. By not expressing them, there’s not an opportunity to evaluate how clearly the ideas are understood, which leaves the ideas weak, tacit, and fragmented. By not sharing them, there’s no way for these discoveries to impact the things that people create and the choices that people make. This is changing, as more people in industry blog and share their ideas online, but the clarity of the ideas is lacking, because the people sharing are often not trained to bring clarity, and because they don’t have as much incentive to share clear ideas.

Of course, people who make knowledge make money too. I get paid to share the knowledge that I and others have made through teaching. Sometimes I get paid to share my knowledge with companies or juries. Sometimes, I don’t understand the enterprise of knowledge: how is it rational for someone to pay me money for knowledge they don’t have, they can’t describe, and they can’t imagine, on the promise that it will bring clarity to the chaos they see in the world? And why is that clarity worth so much to them? If there weren’t jobs on the other end, would they pay as much to have that clarity? Sometimes, I think that professors forget that part of their job is to bring clarity to students, and not just to themselves.

I prefer to make knowledge. I find it more personally interesting, more intellectually challenging, and more meaningful. That doesn’t mean that I think making money is bad, it’s just not something I enjoy as much. That’s partly because I don’t enjoy the puzzle of understanding someone’s emotions. I find that I can see the structure behind an idea more easily than I can see the heartbeat behind someone’s behavior.

In a way, programmers are also people who deal with ideas more than they deal with people. That’s because code is a form of knowledge: it’s an expression of how to that embodies beliefs about the world. In some ways, that’s why it’s hard for so many people who enjoy writing code to understand who they’re writing it for and why: that requires understanding the people’s feelings. It’s strange that something so logical and so formal as code is still fundamentally about feelings.

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