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Knowledge Vs. Understanding

knowledge vs. understanding

“Any fool can know. The point is to understand.”

Albert Einstein

Knowledge is know-how. It is the theory that we can acquire from different sources, books, teachers, Youtube, or mentors.

Understanding, on the other hand, is something far more profound. It is the layer of experience on top of the knowledge that helps translate your knowledge from a third-person theory into a first-person experience.

Understanding something means knowing everything about it through a first-person experience of seeing, feeling, tasting, smelling, or hearing it. Experience is the application of our sensory and emotional faculties in processing something external.

Recognising this distinction between knowledge and understanding is crucial as it impacts everything we do in our day-to-day lives.

Knowledge Vs. Understanding In Real World Situations

  • A doctor who earns an academic distinction is not necessarily as good as the academically “average” doctor who has spent hundreds our hours treating patients with different ailments.
  • A mechanical engineer who knows the science of mechanics is less likely to fix a broken automobile compared to an academically “illiterate” mechanic who fixes cars for a living every day.
  • A musician who learns music mechanically and plays the notes is displaying knowledge at work. A musician who is experiencing the process of practice with intention, paying attention to how the musical notes are being produced, is immersed in the learning process with total sensory commitment. This person understands how good music is produced.
  • Think politics today. People debate and challenge one another based on knowledge and information shared on social media. But none of them know the reality because they have not experienced any of what they debate individually. They think the more information they have, the better their understanding is. Unfortunately, more information and more knowledge do not translate into more understanding.

The Doer Vs. The Talker

Real understanding comes from more “doing,” where we commit our complete sensory focus to appreciate the finer nuances of what we have learned through information.

This is the difference between a doer and a talker. A doer does something to gain an understanding. A talker focuses on gaining more knowledge without really understanding the fundamentals.

How does this play out in most workplaces?

Let me take the example of my domain of technology selling. 

A salesperson reads up on the technology, use cases, gains some knowledge through classroom training, and starts spewing out that knowledge to clients in the hope of convincing them about the technology or the solution. Unfortunately, the salesperson has done little to understand the technology at a sensory level. He does not take time to understand the customer situation, why, and how the technology can add value. As he advances through his career, accumulating more knowledge without paying attention to gaining a fundamental understanding of any of the domains the clients operate in, he ends up building a shallow professional personality that gets exposed when faced with challenging circumstances in the future.  

Gaining Understanding

So what must one do to gain real understanding?

Commit to doing more than just gaining knowledge.

Let me illustrate the idea through the same example of the sales person.

Imagine you have to submit a technical proposal to a client. You read up about the client; you get some information from the client’s website; you meet the client and gain some understanding of the client’s problem; you have the knowledge about your products- You combine the three aspects and put together a proposal doing a lot of cut and paste activities.

This is a classic shallow knowledge work at play.

In contrast, you meet up with the clients multiple times, convince them to sit with you to show you what they do in their work daily, and experience the issues they encounter firsthand. In doing this, you gain a deep understanding of the customer’s situation. When you develop this deep understanding of the customer situation backed by the sensory focus and emotional work you have committed, you will find yourself unable to do a shallow cut-paste exercise. Instead, you find yourself in a state where you have to write a proposal from scratch based on your understanding of the customer’s situation. It is unique.

In writing a completely new proposal from scratch, you gain a deep appreciation of how high-quality proposals are written. You then share it with the customers, eagerly seek feedback, and keep improving the proposal as your understanding keeps improving.

This is real understanding at play.

I wish everyone spends more time and effort gaining a deep understanding of domains by doing real-value-added work, going beyond the comfort of mere knowledge. Those doing this will find their careers more fulfilling and successful.

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