A monthly newsletter on mastery and creativity Subscribe


The Difference Between Knowing and Understanding

“We live in a world awash with information, but we seem to face a growing scarcity of wisdom. And what’s worse, we confuse the two,” said Maria Popova in her timeless essay on wisdom in the age of information. “We believe that having access to more information produces more knowledge, which results in more wisdom. But, if anything, the opposite is true — more and more information without the proper context and interpretation only muddles our understanding of the world rather than enriching it.”

Example: We know that exercise is good for us, but we may not understand why. When we understand the benefits and range of factors—the science and the impact on our health, mind, and creativity—this growing understanding should compel us to act, whereas simply knowing does not.

If the sight of people staring at their phones or taking selfies makes you cynical and angry, it stems from a lack of an understanding on human nature and how technology feeds our primitive desires like connection and belonging. This lack of understanding creates frustration, and it’s difficult to be self-aware about the causes of our frustrations, so we sort the chaos into order by tweeting, Facebooking, hating, criticizing, and trolling.

To understand is to see an array of colors within a picture and to appreciate all of them. To understand is to feel the different fabrics and textures, and how each individual part not only supplements one another but is, in many ways, intertwined. In the words of psychologist Carl Jung, “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”

However, this quest for understanding both others and ourselves must be a deliberate practice rooted in humility, open-mindedness, and patience — a dogged inquiry into the unknown but also a humbling realization that the unknown will always cast a larger shadow. In The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra, Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh offers his perspective on what it means to truly understand something:

“Penetration means to enter something, not just to stand outside of it. When we want to understand something, we cannot just stand outside and observe it. We have to enter deeply into it and be one with it in order to really understand. If we want to understand a person, we have to feel their feelings, suffer their sufferings, and enjoy their joy. The sutra uses the word “penetration” to mean “full comprehension.” The word “comprehend” is made up of the Latin roots com, which means “together in mind,” and prehendere, which means “to grasp it or pick it up.” So to comprehend something means to pick it up and be one with it. There is no other way to understand something.”

Books are like maps to a person’s understanding; it’s a way for us embark on a tour into the unknown but with a help of a well versed tour guide. Take for example Debbie Millman’s fantastic book, Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits. She explores the subject of brands by asking experts from a variety of fields: graphic designers, anthropologists, historians, scientists, authors, marketers, and more. Each perspective is a dot that is polished by experience and time, and the book is an attempt to string these dots together to form the jewel of understanding. The book wouldn’t be as powerful if it was only focused on graphic designers. Because Millman interviews people from diverse backgrounds with a range of expertise, it provides a holistic understanding of the subject. Let’s also remember that reading this one book doesn’t mean we completely understand the subject but rather we have started the process to understand. Because of the diversity of thinkers, we have more to ponder and work with.

Pursuing a life of understanding rather than trying to be right is enormously difficult because it requires consistent change not only of our views but our mind. Change is uncomfortable, and just because it’s consistent doesn’t mean it gets easier. A life of seeking to understand requires us to learn how to pause when we feel anger or entitlement or fear, to remember to take a step back and absorb the details that were missed.

As Maria Popova mediated in her 7 lessons learned in 7 years of her art [emphasis mine]:

“We live in a culture where one of the greatest social disgraces is not having an opinion, so we often form our “opinions” based on superficial impressions or the borrowed ideas of others, without investing the time and thought that cultivating true conviction necessitates. We then go around asserting these donned opinions and clinging to them as anchors to our own reality. It’s enormously disorienting to simply say, “I don’t know.” But it’s infinitely more rewarding to understand than to be right — even if that means changing your mind about a topic, an ideology, or, above all, yourself.

For a long time I couldn’t understand why a group of my friends enjoyed going out every Friday and Saturday, buying new outfits and spending needlessly, all in vein of attracting vain people. What’s worse, they failed every weekend, talked about their failures during the weekday, swore to never go out again, but would fall prey by Friday noon. It boggled my mind because how could one not be self-aware about it? How do you remain unaware of your desires and actions leading to repeated failures?

I resented it. But what a profound misunderstanding on my part, and how self-serving it was for me to feel that way. By understanding their personality (and mine), their background (some friends grew up with Happy Hour ingrained into their lives), their worldview and aspirations and mindset, it started to make sense why they did what they did. I didn’t agree with it still, but I no longer had feelings of resentment or, from what I had to really uncover, an accelerated sense of maturity that was somehow superior. When all these dots connected, I realized that an understanding allows acceptance to arise.

It’s easy to be angry with a racist prick. But when you truly understand that person — their upbringing, worldview, personality, family history, where they were raised, the nature of stereotypes, and so many more factors that pushes a person to think and act that way — yes, we pity or even sometimes berate them, but ultimately we need to understand so we can accept who they are. The difficulty is wanting to understand and accept them, because it’s so much easier to resent them, to place them in a container that’s labeled “Broken” and move on.

Life will be way easier by doing the latter, but a part of me believes that a life of understanding, regardless of the stress it produces, is worth living. The way squats and deadlifts tones your legs, exercising an understanding hones and enriches the mind.

If I understand a person or event, this understanding should inspire me to live more positively than negatively, maybe push me to contribute in a meaningful way. The goal is to get out of that place of frustration, baseless opinions, gossip, and to combine knowledge and ideas that helps us lead better lives.

When I think about this topic and need to find my center, I can’t help but return to Marcus Aurelius’s wisdom in Meditations. He said:

“To accept it without arrogance, to let it go with indifference.”

“If anyone can refute me — show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective — I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.”

“That it’s not what they do that bothers us: that’s a problem for their minds, not ours. It’s our own misperceptions. Discard them. Be willing to give up your thinking of this as a catastrophe … and your anger is gone. How do you do that? By recognizing that you’ve suffered no disgrace. Unless disgrace is the only thing that can hurt you, you’re doomed to commit innumerable offenses—to become a thief, or heaven only knows what else.”

“Your life will change when you change your mind,” I meditated to myself when I created the Motivated Mastery manifesto. How do we change our mind? By seeking to understand rather than trying to be right; to remain curious as to why we’re here, but more importantly, how we can use our allotted time wisely; to find the knowledge that helps us become better humans; to humbled by the beauty that escapes us; to be self-aware. We mistakenly believe that life is short, until someone like Seneca comes along and pops our bubble by saying, “life is long if you know how to use it.” Knowing how comes from an understanding, an appreciation, and a willingness to find your center in the midst of discomfort.

While we may never truly understand ourselves, other people, the world or the universe, doesn’t that stir a visceral gut feeling to want to find out?