Knowing vs Understanding

There is a big difference between knowing and understanding something. Knowing something only gets you to the start of a possible long journey. A long journey that must be taken to reach complete understanding.

When you are a child in the passenger seat you gain knowledge of how to drive. You know how to turn the wheel, accelerate and break. Pretty simple stuff. Then you go get your learners permit. You know the rules of the road. You “know” how to drive. But there is a big gap between where you are now and actually being able to drive properly. You will get in the car with one of your parents supervising. You will put the theory into practise. You will begin the process of understanding. Only after some time will you really understand what it is to drive.

Probably the hardest thing about this is that it is difficult to know yourself if you have reached the point of understanding or if there is a long way to go. For it is easy to think you have understood if you compare yourself to how you used to think previously. But you have no conception of what it is like to think at a more advanced level until you have actually reached it. This is why many people often assume they have advanced quite far down the road when in reality they have barely even begun. This is why we sometimes need a teacher who is further ahead to show us the way.

You may know a lot of great things. But the point where knowing transitions into understanding is the point where it becomes part of you, it becomes fully entrenched in your thoughts, words and actions. It is automatic.

This is why you can hear great words from someone who may genuinely mean them. But there is a gap between what they say and what they do. If you fully and genuinely understand something then you actions will always conform to it.

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20 comments
  1. there is a great understanidng that you don’t know what you don’t know

    • I think that’s why it is useful surround yourself with wise people who can give another point of view. Or at least to question yourself a lot about everything.

  2. nannus said:

    The funny thing is that once you understand how to drive in the sense of the word you are using here, you no longer “understand” how to do it. As long as you have only explicit theoretical knowledge, you can’t drive very well, but you can explain it. But once you have really learnt how to do it, try to explain to somebody how you are doing it. You can’t. A large part of the advanced, “automated” knowledge is implicit. You can activate and use it, do it, but you can no longer access it as explicit and explainable knowledge.

  3. Isn’t the highest level of understanding a combination of the explicit and implicit (to use your definitions)?

    I mean I trained myself in compassion. Initially it required a lot of concious effort using knowledge in how to do it but after sometime it becomes a natural way of being. And only when you get there can you really understand it.

  4. Michelle said:

    Understanding can only happen when you reach a certain stage. To use your analogy a child of 8 watching a parent drive may have a knowledge of driving but can not physically do it, (no peripheral vision and can’t reach the pedal). Many lessons (understandings) as we grow into adulthood are not possible until we are physically, emotionally or socially ready, I suppose this is when it turns from knowledge to an understanding. Like the saying goes “you can’t put an old head on young shoulders”. I have to remind myself of this often…………….I have 2 teenagers.

    • I agree that a teenager’s brain simply isn’t capable of understanding many things. The ability to focus and empathise isn’t complete. But beyond 23 the prefrontal cortex is fully developed and age ceases to be an issue in terms of the capability to understand – although some experiences might be necessary to knock some understanding into them.

      • Michelle said:

        How true. I just think of my ability to understand certain things at 16 compared to 26 compared to 36 compared to 46…….can’t wait to discover new understandings at 56, 66 and so on. We humans are a marvellous creations

  5. Monique said:

    I know I understand this. I think.

  6. “This is why you can hear great words from someone who may genuinely mean them. But there is a gap between what they say and what they do. If you fully and genuinely understand something then you actions will always conform to it.”

    This is an inspired remark. I needed to hear this. Often, I feel like I’m that guy. I’ve always been very good at being sincere and well intentioned, but sadly I don’t feel like I follow through enough with what is in my heart and in my mind. I’m counterintuitive in my living. That needs to change!

    • I think pushing yourself to realise this change is one of the most satisfying things in life. :)

      • Discipline is an important attribute to develop! =)

  7. glenn said:

    This is a great post. From the terrifically rich analogy to the mention of mentors this is a good read. I, new to blogging, have found great satisfaction in writing about living in sobriety, living in recovery from years of substance abuse. I understand what it takes to live a healthy, sober life but realizing it fully is a daily education for which I am massively grateful.

    • It is great that you write about it. It can help others to reach this level by giving them ideas and points of view that they might not otherwise come across of have access to. :)

  8. John said:

    I think that making mistakes is a prerequisite for understanding. Anyone can be told and “know”, but to truly understand you need a visceral appreciation for “why” that only crossing a line in personal exploration can provide. Herein is one of the classic parent-child conflicts too. Back when I was a 20-something I invented a slogan for myself;

    “You’ll never know how much is enough until you know how much is TOO much”

    That is where “understanding” comes from.

    • I agree but i think it depends on the situation. Obviously you don’t need to try heroin to know what is too much. You can learn from other peoples experiences too (again depending on the situation).

  9. Thanks for letting me camp out in your blog for a little while today. I had a great time and tried to leave my campsite as good as when I arrived. I’ll be back!

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