Tuesday, 29 March 2011

It's Not What We Know...

"To know and not to do is not to know" - Proverb.

I still remember learning to drive. In particular I remember that most tricky of manoeuvres, the hill-start. It was a warm summer's evening as I sat there in the driver’s seat, parked on a precipitous hill listening to my instructor patiently explaining the technique.

Handbrake on, engage first gear, easy on the accelerator and a little bit of clutch, watch the bonnet rise, off with the handbrake, a little more clutch, a little more accelerator and move smoothly off.

I repeated it back to him, all nine steps. I had it word for word, no problem. Then I started the engine and almost immediately, there was a problem! 

The engine screamed as I pushed the accelerator to the floor, the bonnet lurched into the air as my foot fell of the clutch and before I even had time to think about the handbrake the engine spluttered to a halt like a wounded beast.   

On that day I learnt two important lessons:

1) Knowledge and the application of knowledge are two very different things.

I had plenty of knowledge, all nine steps, word for word. What I lacked was experience of application.

We are privileged to be living in this time in history. We have greater access to education and information than ever before. Think of the internet, in seconds we can have at our fingertips thousands of web pages dedicated to almost any topic we can possible conceive of. We have more information than we can possible absorb during a lifetime.

Some people spend their lives accruing knowledge yet they never really reap the benefits of it. Like the hill-start, they may be able to describe all the steps perfectly but if they had to do it in practice they would quickly lurch to a halt.

Maybe it’s the very fear of lurching to a halt that sometimes stops us from applying our knowledge in the real world. It’s easy to fall in to the trap of reaching for an ever more perfect rendition of the steps rather than entering the messy world of application. But of what use is knowledge without application?

There's a saying ‘knowledge is power’, but I think the famous author Napoleon Hill put it better when he said, knowledge is only potential power”. That potential is only fulfilled through application.

2) When we first apply our knowledge in the real world, it can be uncomfortable.

My first attempt at a hill-start was uncomfortable, the second attempt was a slight improvement and after four or five times I had it. Now I can perform a hill-start without a second thought (usually!).

But to get to that ‘expert’ stage and to reap the benefits of being able to drive up hills without getting stuck, I had to go through the discomfort of applying my knowledge in the real world.

That initial discomfort can sometimes confine us to the pursuit of obtaining knowledge in place of applying knowledge. It's so much easier to repeat the steps while parked on the hill with the engine off than to risk the unpredictable result of actually moving forward.

As you may have guessed I’m speaking from personal experience. One of my passions is learning, there is always something new and fascinating to catch my attention. However, applying knowledge in the real world takes a different set of skills:
  • Courage to step into the unknown
  • A willingness to fail and make mistakes
  • Determination to continue despite setbacks

I’ve discovered that while unlocking the potential of that knowledge can be much harder than simply obtaining it, it can also be extremely rewarding

Sitting in a car repeating the nine theoretical steps of the hill-start is not much fun. Starting the engine, lurching off and seeing what lies ahead is so much more exciting! 

Image courtesy of RLHyde


  1. Sometimes people apply knowledge and they don't have it, but succeed better than those who have knowledge but don't know how to apply it.

  2. @Anna Sergi A very good point! Nothing happens until application.

  3. Belas palavras always. Estava com saudade de ler isso.