How Do We (Really) Learn?

How do we learn? How do we build knowledge? What do we really know, and don’t know? Are there not things that you thought you did not know, yet somehow discovered you did?And reversely, how many times did you assume you knew how something worked, but actually when challenged or put on the spot, realised you did not?

Knowledge is one of the biggest themes of modern society. It underpins everything we do as human beings. One of the most dangerous contemporary myth of our time is the one of the driven individual, wealthy and successful, competent and popular. The individual who never ends up in the supposedly “weak” position of “not knowing”. Expertise, being all-knowledgeable, is commonly regarded as the Holy Grail. Even more so since we have access to an amazing amount of information in the form of millions of books, trainings, videos, seminars and technical workshops, without forgetting of course the most evident of all the sources of knowledge: the Internet. We probably come across more knowledge in a couple of hours surfing the web than any of the billions of humans who have ever lived on this planet before our time ever had over their entire lifetime.

However, despite all this knowledge at arm’s length, most people don’t feel fulfilled. More often than not do we witness that knowledge does not seem to bring about happiness; actually it does not even necessarily bring about success. How many of us know stuff, yet don’t feel competent or confident enough to use it? How many of us have read books, discussed with people, and continue to rehearse that story that we are not knowledgeable (hence competent) enough? In other words, we are “not good enough”. Let’s take another example: we all know of apparently very knowledgeable people, who don’t elicit any particular drive or awe within ourselves. Who don’t inspire us, despite the number of facts they appear to have stored in their mind. And we also know of other people who also appear to have some deep knowledge about something, yet these people actually manage to hook us in; they have us buy into their own reality, because of the way they convey what they know, and I would even say, because of the way they know what they know. What do I mean by that? What makes the difference? How come knowledge can sometimes be this powerful driver, when at other times it just seems to be a hollow pursuit? Where is the catch?

The truth is there are two types of knowledge, and they differ at a very fundamental level. The best way to think about this is perhaps to go back to Ancient Greece. The battle of Gnosis vs. Eidein. These two Greek words both mean “knowledge”. Yet they convey a different reality of what knowledge means.

Eidein is the intellectual knowledge. It is the theoretical knowledge of facts, it is the knowledge which anyone can learn about anything as soon as they come across it and remember it. I know that Barack Obama is the President of the United States of America. I know that 2+2=4. I know about music because I have read about Mozart, Ray Charles or Madonna. But this is all very left-brain stuff. I know this, and a million other things, at a very intellectual, conscious level. It is somewhere in my mind, but when I retrieve it, I retrieve a fact. I retrieve a theory. I retrieve what could be considered as being objectively true, and all human beings could have stored the same eidein in their mind.

Gnosis, on the other hand, is the personal knowledge. It is a deeper kind of knowledge, a subjective knowledge. It has had many links, throughout history, with religion or spirituality. But essentially, it can be understood as knowing through experience. I know about music because I play the piano, and the way I know about how to play the piano is different to your way of playing the piano. I know how to ride a bicycle. You can read all you want about riding a bicycle, and become the world’s expert about equilibrium forces and inertia and the forces involved in one’s movement as they ride it but trust me, until you have tried it yourself, you don’t know how to ride a bicycle. You might think you know, because you know in theory, but you don’t really know, because you don’t know personally. At the subjective experiential level. You see? The thing is the English language is limited with this unique word: “knowledge”; but there are two types of knowledge. One is about facts. The other is about experience. I am sure you already know which one I think you should pursue, in order to live a fulfilling life.

If you don’t live what you learn, you can continue learning and learning more and more stuff, accumulate and develop a whole mind-encyclopedia, go on numerous trainings to keep building your database of knowledge, expand your eidein as much as you can, yet how good do you feel about what you know? When put on the spot, and asked to talk about your real life experience of it, or demonstrate it, then what? Where is the credibility? You have learned about all this, you have read all these books, but until you actually do what it is that you’re learning about, you don’t really know it. Your gnosis remained as small as it was to begin with. So many people love something, would like to do something, learn about it in some way, yet never take the step to actually do it and live by it. They don’t feel ready, they don’t feel they can do it, and therefore all they do is expand their eidein without ever developing their gnosis. They are actually often afraid that other people will judge them as not being “knowledgeable” enough, and what I refer to here is the eidein type of knowledge. In other words, not “competent” enough. And THIS, is the catch. We live by this fake myth that we have to know this list of never-ending theories and models and historical trends in order to be good at something. You are good at something when you have done something many times over. Not (only) by reading new books. It is pointless to have a huge theoretical knowledge if you have actually never put it into practice. Of course, eidein helps, I am not discarding that. Knowing what other people have done before you, how things work in theory, can save a lot of time and be incredibly helpful. But in and of itself, it will never get you where you want to be.

If you love something, learn by doing it. If you want to learn something, learn by experiencing it! No one is perfect when they start. But the ONLY way to really learn, and become good and really competent at something, is to develop your personal experience of it. How do we (really) learn? Live what you learn.

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