Provision #315: Know How

Laser Provision

It’s not enough to know what our interests require. We also need to know how to put what we know to work. Unfortunately, many people fail to jump from knowing what to knowing how. Their attitudes and behaviors interfere with the development of their full potential. This Provision includes a simple process for turning this around.

LifeTrek Provision

Last week I wrote about the importance of education to the achievement of dreams. Whether it’s health, wealth, or any other inherent ambition, learning what our ambition requires is a critical precondition to success. Given today’s easy access to virtually unlimited information, we really have no one to blame but ourselves if we fail to get educated in our areas of interest.

Unfortunately, for many people the concept of education is limited to reading, attending class, writing papers, and taking tests. Given the years that so many of us spend going to school, it’s understandable that we would come to equate education with what happens in the classroom. But education is much larger than classroom and book learning.

The quintessential human learning experience, for example, has nothing to do with the classroom or with books. We see something we want, go after it, and learn on the basis of trial and correction. Virtually everyone has this experience of learning. Take the near-universal phenomenon of learning to walk. As our legs strengthen and lengthen, we take our first tentative steps until we fall down or someone catches us. By walking, losing our balance, and walking again we eventually learn how to master the process.

So too when it comes to many other areas of human experience. One of my running buddies is a leading authority in Free Electron Laser systems. As they build ever more powerful systems, there’s no way to know exactly what will heat up and become a problem with each iteration of the machine. To get educated, they go after what they want • building new equipment and gradually turning up the power until something breaks. Then they power down, make corrections, and try again. In the end, they too eventually learn how to master the process.

“There are things,” my friend reports, “that you can’t figure out ahead of time. You just have to try it, learn from your experience, make corrections, and try it again. Eventually, you’ll know how to get it right.”

That statement contains a lot of wisdom. It reflects the shift from knowing what to knowing how that all true masters of any subject eventually incorporate into their learning. This is as true in technical fields, such as my friend’s laser systems, as in theoretical and social fields. Without know how, all the know what in the world will not do us much good.

This was a principal insight of Paulo Freire, a 20th-century Brazilian thinker and activist who became famous in the field of “informal education” by emphasizing the importance of both dialogue and doing. Freire’s method, which grew out of his commitment to and work with Brazilian peasants, assumed that even the poorest of the poor could become experts about the realities of life and the process of social change itself.

For this to happen, Freire did not suggest that the poor needed to go to school. He rather suggested that through dialogue and doing they could develop an action-reflection model of learning that would make them masters of their own and, in turn, of society’s transformation. The process here is not much different from that of my friend with the laser: take action, learn from your experience, make corrections, and take more action. Eventually, you’ll know how to make a difference in the world.

Others have spoken of such “know how” in terms of “tacit knowledge” and “implicit learning.” Tacit knowledge refers to all those things we learn without even trying, such as recognizing the face of a friend. In organizations, tacit knowledge refers to those things an organization can do which are not written down or even formally expressed. They just know how.

Implicit learning is the process of acquiring tacit knowledge. It is a little like Freire’s method of dialogue and doing, which enables people to get things done in the world. But Freire’s method is more explicit. It may not be classroom and book learning, but it is a way of approaching life that deepens one’s awareness of what’s going on and how to make desired changes.

Isn’t this what all of us want to know? We don’t just want head learning, whether about health, wealth, or any other subject, we want know how. Know how goes beyond the what to the level of attitude and behavior.

Many people, for example, know at least the basics of health and wealth. But for some reason they never take effective action capable of producing health and wealth for themselves. In some cases, the problem is one of attitude. They may be afraid, for example, of the hard work or the risk. They may have tried before and failed. For one reason or another, they have developed a bad attitude. Instead of knowing how, they know how not to get things done.

Others have a good attitude, but their behavior leaves much to be desired. They understand that people make their own luck through perseverance, creativity, and experimentation. They have a positive, all-things-are-possible, can-do attitude. But their behavior never lives up to the hype. They procrastinate until it’s too late, hang out with people who distract them from the task at hand, or suffer from other bad habits that prevent them from making progress.

Do you suffer from bad attitudes or bad behavior? It’s never too late to turn things around. And Freire’s method may hold the key.

First, get focused on what’s happening in your life that you like and that you don’t like. One way to keep this from getting too abstract is to go through picture albums from both the recent and distant past. If you see a picture that you like, pull it aside. Do the same with the pictures you don’t like.

Second, start conversing about the things you like and don’t like. This can happen privately, through journal writing, or together with one or more friends. Show them the pictures. Explain what you like and what you don’t like. Explain the reasons behind your feelings. And start talking about how you can do more of what you like and how you can change what you don’t like.

Third, take action. Whether it works out or not, all action is perfectly designed for your own learning and growth. Once you get hooked on learning, you’ll be less concerned about the results and more concerned about the process itself. My friend with the laser systems never has a failed experiment; all experiments • even the ones that don’t work out • generate learnings that lead to future experiments and eventual mastery of the field.

So too with you. When you shift from a success orientation to a learning orientation, you will become much more active and determined in the pursuit of health, wealth, and wisdom. When that happens, mastery is sure to follow.

Coaching Inquiries: What do you know how to do? Would you like to learn more? What experiments could you conduct? What people could involve in the process? How can you move from knowing what to knowing how?

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob.

I look forward to your Monday-morning mentoring and messages each week. I’ve purchased a half dozen books from various references and recommendations I’ve read on LifeTrek. Hurry and finish your book so I can stop getting the bits of wisdom from here and there, and I can get them all in one place. I look forward to reading it. (Ed. Note: Thanks for the encouragement. It’s coming!)

Your Provision, “Get Educated,” hit home for me. I want to learn Spanish so that I can speak to and understand clients. I can speak and understand a lot, but not to the extent necessary. “Get curious and get educated” is exactly what I need to do. I will be 54 years old in September and now feel that if I focus and study I can be fluent. Thanks!  

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran
LifeTrek Coaching International
121 Will Scarlet Lane
Williamsburg, VA 23185-5043

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