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Do You Know, or Do You Understand?

I cannot place a premium on continuing education. Striving to learn as much as possible to better yourself and seeking to perfect your craft is essential to being successful in any field.

I have always had a love of learning. While I likely inherited this love from my entire family, my Grandfather was instrumental in sharing this amazing passion for learning. I loved my Grandfather; my mother’s father, he was an amazing man who possessed an abundance of talents. His passion for learning and aspiring to be better was like no other. Never finishing the eighth grade, he was self-taught in just about everything. The knowledge he acquired allowed him to build homes, work with jewelry, paint, create items such as sundials, and repair machinery to name a few. He was truly as Renaissance man.

I would spend as much time as possible with him when we would visit him in Rhode Island. When he would teach me anything, he would always conclude each lesson by asking me “do you understand?”. My response would be “yes”, which he promptly replied by saying “if you understand, then say I understand.” I would then answer, “I understand” which was followed by a big smile and a laugh between the two of us. Every lesson or learning experience he shared with me in my 38 years spent with him ended with that exact dialogue.

Thus, those two words have resonated with me in everything I do. As a result, I place a very large premium on seeking to understand things as fully as possible, and if I don’t completely understand it, I seek out someone who can help me understand.

Often times we find ourselves rushing to a snap judgment about an exercise, method, article, position, or stance on a particular topic of interest. I too have been guilty of this during my career, and probably more times than I would like to admit. But why do we tend to rush to judgment on issues that may have a varying point of view from what we were taught? Is it because we are embarrassed and feel like this is something that we should already know but don’t? Many times it’s simply just a lack of understanding. Before I continue, I think skepticism is not a bad thing, but skepticism without further investigation, is. This leads to a syndrome of knowing rather than understanding.

What do I mean by knowing versus understanding? This is like speaking another language. For instance I know that there is the Italian language. I can say a few words and phrases in Italian. I even know how to count to ten in Italian. However, I don’t understand the Italian language, and I don’t pretend to. Counting to ten and being able to ask where the bathroom is doesn’t give me an understanding of the language.

Perhaps a more relevant and industry specific example would be anatomy. Many in our profession can tell you that there is a muscle called the psoas, but few really understand anatomy enough to tell you the proximal and distal attachments, the movements which the psoas can bring about, or any additional relevant information. In other words, almost everyone in the profession knows about the psoas, but does everyone understand its relevance to the function in the body?

Another example I have recently seen is surrounding the concepts of DNS and PRI. I have come across a number of people who know about these two concepts, and in many instances have even taken a course or two, but those who truly understand the two concepts thoroughly are few and far between. Remember, I’m not saying that mastery of these occurs overnight, but as long as you’re seeking to understand implies that you are continuing to master the information presented to you. I am referring to those who take the courses but don’t seek to understand and are content with just knowing.

Why this happens I am not sure. However this “syndrome” is a trait that has become quite ubiquitous in our industry, and while I’m not sure what the driving force is behind this, I have outlined four potential reasons/personalities to perhaps explain this problem:

The panic-stricken professional:

Perhaps there is just so much information out there that everyone feels that they need to learn everything as fast as they can, and that if they don’t take every class or course, panic sets in instilling a feeling that they are falling behind in the industry. This leads to never fully understanding what was taught and while they feel better for taking the course, they clearly still haven’t learned much about anything except knowing about a new technique or method.

The” if I ask a question, they’ll think I’m stupid professional”:

Another explanation might be that some feel like they should already have obtained this information, resulting in them not wanting to ask questions because they are embarrassed. The result of this is also never fully grasping a concept fully which not only hinders their own personal development, but those who rely on their knowledge base (athletes, individuals, colleagues, etc.).

The old school professional:

These are the individuals who are open to taking every class, course or seminar out there because everyone else is doing it. This individual typically has no desire to use any of the new information obtained, and many times has a battery of excuses as to why the information doesn’t apply in their setting. Yet they continue to seek to know about many things, so that they can converse with their colleagues and administrators to make it seem as if they understand, yet at the end of the day, we all know that they do not.

The new kid on the block:

The last explanation for this is an unfortunate one. It’s those who seek to know, so that they can say “add it to my resume”. I generally see this with younger people in the profession i.e. interns, graduate assistants, etc. These individuals go out and take courses far over their head because it’s what the rest of the professionals are doing, thus resulting in a complete lack of understanding. This is much like a 3rd grader so enthralled with what the senior in high school is doing, that he immediately enrolls in the 12th grade just so that can fast forward their career a bit and beef up the ol’ resume.

Please understand that I appreciate the desire to learn and to expand ones “toolbox” as much as possible, but if you only know the name of the tool, but don’t understand how to use it, or what it’s capable of doing, then it really doesn’t do you much good.

Everyone who I consider to be at the top of their game all have one thing in common. They work hard, continue to learn, check the ego at the door, and become better each and every day. This observation can be summed up by two quotes from some poignant people in the history of the word.

“If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, I would not seem so wonderful at all.” – Michelangelo

“The harder I worked, the luckier I was.” – Thomas Jefferson

So next time you are in a position to learn, ask yourself, do you understand, or just know?

More to come…

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