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How to move yourself beyond just knowing stuff

I have talked before about the difference between knowing and understanding. When we have nothing more than an exam to study for, it’s often only practical to memorise facts. Often, people enter an exam room knowing a whole lot of facts, but with little understanding of their underlying meaning. Those people might even score highly, but may not really understand the content in a practical sense.

I saw a good example of this at work back in high school, when a friend of mine announced one day that he didn’t understand the unit metres per second squared (m/s²). m/s² is a unit that measures acceleration, that is, the rate at which a moving object increases or decreases its velocity. He was a smart guy who had easily passed the recent physics exam. To do that, he would have solved problems that required him to confront acceleration units. Presumably, he blindly accepted that acceleration was just measured in a unit he didn’t understand.

I’ll say that again. He passed the exam, but he didn’t understand the meaning behind a concept in it. In other words, he knew it, but didn’t understand it.

This scenario probably happens more than we realise. How many times have you heard someone referred to as ‘book smart’? This is a title given to people who have knowledge about stuff, but who lack the ability to apply their knowledge practically.

I myself entered many an exam room with a mind full of facts but little understanding. Little did I know how simple it was to move to the next level – that is, truly understanding something.

In English grammar, there is a term called a ‘phrase in apposition’, which demonstrates what I mean. Check out these two sentences:

Steve is moving to Belgium.

Steve, my best friend, is moving to Belgium.


The first thing you’ll notice is that both sentences make perfect sense. The other thing is that the second sentence takes a little more time to explain who Steve is.

Learning is just the same. You can blindly accept that some random person called Steve is moving to Belgium and memorise it, in the hope that you will be asked a related question, or you can explore who this Steve guy really is.

Let’s say you’re studying Economics and you keep seeing the phrase ‘opportunity cost’. You may find a small section in the textbook explaining what it means, but even if so, you might not really understand it. At this point, the best thing you can do is completely stop. Stop taking on more facts. You’ve hit a term you don’t understand, and yet it seems to get mentioned fairly frequently. Ok. This must be important, and it probably makes a lot of other stuff clearer as well. So stop. Put your entire study on hold until you really and truly understand what the term ‘opportunity cost’ means.

Read one definition of it. Read another, then another. Keep reading them until you have a much clearer idea in your mind about what it means. One definition is never enough when you’re dealing with a term that makes absolutely no sense to you. It’s too easy to misinterpret one person’s explanation of it. Reading multiple definitions of the same thing will give you the same answer from many different perspectives.

Now that you have a decent idea of what the term means, start to reflect on some examples of it. When people talk about ‘the opportunity cost of staying home on a Saturday night so you can get an early night’, what do they mean? By forcing yourself to think of some answers to that question, you’ll quickly work out whether you have retained the knowledge or not, and, you’ll extend the understanding you do have.

By moving beyond just knowing stuff, you ensure that whatever you are learning makes sense to you. Not someone else. You.

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