Knowing and doing

by Steve Brock on August 14, 2014

Fishing in YellowstoneA while back, I had lunch with my friend Al. We got to talking about the idea of experiential learning. I had noted that in general, Baby Boomers (roughly early 50’s to late 60’s) tend to focus on knowing something cognitively whereas Millennials (late teens to early 30’s) are more into the experience itself.

I was explaining that in the book I’m writing on meaningful travel, there are both stories and exercises/experiments. When I run the book by my Boomer friends, in general they focus on the stories and glance at the exercises making comments like, “Oh, I could do that.” But they never do. They assume that knowing about the experience is the same as having had it.

My Millennial friends look at the book and say something like, “I might glance at the stories, but I’d definitely do each of the exercises.”

The interesting thing about both is that each misses a major part of meaningful travel. Boomers think that cognitive awareness about something is enough which is like having someone explain to you what chocolate tastes like or reading about love without ever being in it. Millennials are more interested in collecting experiences, so they have the experience, but don’t take time to reflect on it. Instead, they are already moving on to the next experience.

These are, of course, broad generalizations, but see if they don’t ring true with your own circle of friends and acquaintances.

When I explained this to Al, he noted that this idea of separating knowing from doing is a modern concept. In biblical times, there was no such thing as knowing something intellectually without having done it. The only way to truly know something is to engage it experientially and then reflect on it. Which brings me back to fishing.

Before my recent trip to Oregon where my son and I went out with a guide, I had rented some videos from the library on fly fishing. I watched all the methods of casting and retrieving, tying knots and reading the water. I had the knowing without the doing.

Now, based what I’ve mentioned above, you might think that was insufficient and it was in terms of being able to jump in and fish well. But there is a value to having some knowledge before you attempt to do something.

Having prepped somewhat, I knew what to expect and look for. I understood the terms used. And most of all, I had a general mental model of what I was supposed to do. All of that helped.

But it wasn’t until I was out on the river, feeling the tension of the rod bending with the whip of the line or having the tactile sense of how the line lands on the water that the concept of fly fishing started to gel. It took doing for the knowing to be fully realized.

A little knowledge can be a good thing or a dangerous thing depending on what you do with it. If you expect that just knowing about something will suffice in place of the experience of doing it, you will be either disappointed or in denial. If, however, you realize that having a background understanding of something and then participating in it aren’t opposites but equally important components in truly knowing something, then you’re in the best place to learn something new.

Even something like fly fishing.

Read other parts of this series: Gone Fishin‘, Hardware vs. Software, Learning in Small Bites, Eliminate Your Variables and related entries: Doing it right – Part 1 and Part 2

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