“I don’t know what’s the matter with people: they don’t learn by understanding, they learn by some other way — by rote or something. Their knowledge is so fragile!” — Richard P. Feynman, Noted Physicist and Author
First let me clarify, this self help article is not about metaphysical concepts such as the meaning of life. Nor is it about concepts that you understand but don’t do for any reason, maybe because they are hard or inconvenient. This article is about the importance of acquiring a true understanding of what we learn and a few tips from my personal experience on how to do just that. What I have to say here will help you acquire a true understanding of whatever you learn at work, school and in life itself.
How wonderful it would be to get a true understanding of everything you learn (sic!) versus just knowing it superficially. For me it is the difference between being aware of concepts in the mind but not in the heart. A concept is simply the way we organize and interpret our experiences. The problem is most of us are not aware that we hold concepts in our mind. Whether we understand them or not our concepts reveal to ourself in our daily actions. Once we understand this, our daily actions become explainable. It is like seeing with an additional eye.
Take for example the concept of death.My father died in front of my eyes when I was about 6 or 8. I knew he was dead. I knew he was never going to be a part of my life from there on. I knew it. But I did not get it. Only years later when I was a teenager did it finally dawn on me what it meant and felt to have no father. A river of emotions swelled in my heart and I grieved for him. I relived the precious few memories of him and of our once complete family. Memories obscured in the mists of time.
This is a rather dramatic example of the point I am making that knowing is not the same as understanding. Our life really changes only when we truly understand the important life changing concepts such as discipline, sacrifice, love and so on. True learning comes from true understanding. Because only when we understand something do we feel inspired and compelled to change our behavior. The ultimate result of learning. It is like we truly see something for what it is.
I was good at academics doing well in all areas from the sciences to the arts. But ask me what I took away most and it is the fascinating story of humanity a.k.a history. I truly got this subject. The rest was mostly rote.
I was initially attracted to self help books because of hope. One of the very first books I read was Dale Carnegie’s “How To Win Friends and Influence People”. It contained fascinating stories of people overcoming obstacles and learning simple things to become a better person. Years after reading it I still remained without much influence and largely bereft of friendship making skills.
If you are doing everything you can but not making progress then perhaps you are not getting it.
Below are two other examples I share from personal experience about important life altering concepts. Imagine the impact on our life once we acquire a true understanding of them.
Do it for a higher purpose and do it for others
I knew it but did not get it. Guess how I used to respond…with cynicism. That was my flawed understanding of this concept. So for a long time I went about doing it for the obvious. For example blogging to help improve search engine rankings of my self help book subscription site, trying to get ahead at work so that I can bask in the importance of a bigger title and pay and so on. It was tough for me to write though and keep at it.
This changed once I truly grasped the concept. For example sharing my personal insights and knowledge of life changing techniques developed from more than 15 years of reading self help books. Adopting this attitude has started paying me dividends right from the beginning. It is easier for me to write. It is like I am being led to write rather forcing myself to write. Also I feel my self help articles are more heartfelt and genuine instead of sounding contrived as before. Likewise knowing how my little kids look up to me and how they could end up helpless and in a hopeless situation without me inspires me to be a better person. To exercise more, to eat better etc. I could not do whatever little I do if I had concentrated only on me. Yet…
This is another concept that I thought I got yet at the same time did not. I knew I had to be true to myself but what did it mean. My flawed understanding played out like this…I used to deal with my childhood shyness or social clumsiness by saying to myself “Naveen that is just the way you are. This is you.”
Now I know better. One of the things about being true to yourself means acknowledging when something you read, or someone you meet or an experience you encounter clicks with you and when it does not. How can you truly be yourself if you don’t acknowledge and accept what clicks with you and what does not. If this sounds obvious to you then realize that you are an individual with a more realized consciousness. For a long time I did not give myself permission to do this simple thing. Yet I thought I was being true to my self. I have suffered for this including making decisions that I repent even now to this day. Once you truly understand what it means to be yourself you will come to a paradoxical realization. While you are who you are, you can also be more than who you are. It is a lot like if you don’t know where you are going or don’t care where you are going how the heck do you realize whether you are making progress in your life or not.
Once you truly get this concept you start a virtuous cycle. You feed what empowers and energizes you and gradually stop doing things that dis empower you. You build a bigger and better you.
How to develop true understanding
I truly started the practice of reflecting after two significant events happened in my life. One was becoming a Toastmaster (a public speaking organization). As a Toastmaster you are encouraged to speak on topics that you have a direct and personal experience about, which meant I had to reflect on the events of my life. The other was becoming a professional project manager at work. A key project management principle was to collect lessons learned about what went right and what went wrong in a project. The only way to possibly discuss this at the end of a project was to reflect and add it to it every day. Reflecting on this I truly got to understand and internalize some important concepts the project management profession such as communication and risk management. If you thought communication was just ‘telling’ others about what you have done or planning to do then you are at the same place as I was at the beginning of my journey. For the record it is not just about ‘telling’ others.
There is a saying the mind can only bear what the bottom can. Meaning don’t schedule any tasks longer than 90 minutes. Learning which is what true understanding does for you is a demanding task that not only taxes your mind but also your body. A study of peak performers in various areas as quoted in the book “Talent is overrated” by Geoff Colvin observed that even the most elite performers at the international level could barely sustain more than 2 hours of learning a day. Therefore learning in bite sized chunks every day and repeating it ceaselessly every day will help in gaining a true level of understanding. The highest level of mastery. My son attends supplemental training at Kumaon that offers Japanese style pedagogy for young kids. I help him do his homework every day and could not help but notice how repetitive it is. As Zig Ziglar said, if necessity is the mother of invention then repetition is its father.
I first learnt about this from one of my managers who had a tendency to draw out everything on his big white board at every discussion. I never thought of myself as a visual person but found the visualization so helpful that I started doing this myself. Visuals are a great way to establish connections and acquire true understanding. It can be applied to any concepts. We humans are more visual than we may think we are.
I then reflected and connected on this and realized that as a professional project manager visualization is what we do when we perform one of our most important tasks, the Work Break Down Structure, WBS.
After reflection, this is my preferred way to seek a deeper understanding. I first started doing this unconsciously without realizing its power. As a student I was generally stymied by concepts in my science texts. But when I reluctantly pushed myself to start answering questions at the end of the chapter, solving problems and doing the labs the concepts became clear. When I first started my blog I had no real understanding of what I wanted to focus on. Some of my early posts were on self help books, family, my Toastmaster contests, vacations etc. I was all over the place. But I kept writing and soon developed an understanding of my blog purpose. I now post on my personal insights acquired from life experiences and reading various self help books and topics. I also review key concepts from distinctive self help books and programs.
The best analogy is like climbing a staircase or a ladder. Every time you climb a step it becomes obvious to you where you need to step on next.
This is really the true purpose of education. To impart wisdom, in any area of life from the sciences to the art of living, that is truly understood and internalized. To give you an example I discovered the purpose of my blogging and how to get the creative juices flowing only after reading Steve Pavlina’s remarkable post about how to write.
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