Understanding Deeply, A Personal Example

This has been a great year for reading books. Some books have made a profound impact on me and some I can’t remember anything from. At first this used to bother me but as I learned how to read and take notes it bothers me less and less. In his book, Average is Over, Economist Tyler Cowen writes that the new knowledge workers aren’t going to need to know things as much as know where to find them. If I can remember the gist of a book and head into my Evernote account with some key terms, that’s fine.  Most of the time.

My wife and I just wrapped up our Whole30 (here’s how the first five days went) experiment of shifting to a diet built around good sources of protein, lots of vegetables, and some fruit. This change was challenging at first and I had to keep asking her if certain things were allowed. The diet differentiates between peanut and almond butters, butter and ghee, and cooking fats at high or low heat. “Check the book” she would tell me and then I would trot off to find it. After a week of questions she asked if I had really read the book or just flipped through the pages. “Yes I read it.” I said, and then realized that I hadn’t.

I had read it like I read other books that aren’t directly in my zone of focus at the moment. I gave it my full attention but limited the number of notes I took and failed to make connections to other ideas. If someone asked me about why the program didn’t allow bread, beans, or dairy I couldn’t actually answer the question, rather I would sheepishly tell them where to find it.

In the excellent, The Five Elements of Effective Thinking (my full book review is up at Productivityist), Edward Burger and Michael Starbird write that to understand something means to understand it deeply. They write about college students who entered their offices and said they knew the material, but they couldn’t explain it. “If you can’t explain it, you didn’t know it” they would universally answer. I laughed out loud at this because I had the same experiences, from both sides of the desk.

About understanding deeply, Burger and Starbird write, “understanding is not a yes or no proposition, it’s not an on or off switch.” Understanding something deeply means to get past the superficial facts and see what lies beneath them, what holds them up.

I just started listening to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast and his first twenty-five minutes about the start of World War I is fascinating. I knew that there was an assassination that started the war, but when you think about it that’s a pretty trivial act for what followed. Knowing just these facts is like hearing about a five alarm fire that was started by the candles on a birthday cake. It makes some sense, but there had to be something else in play. As Carlin explains there was much more to the start of World War I.

Knowing what the It Starts With Food book says are allowed foods and not allowed foods is one thing, knowing why a food might be in one category or another. Knowing the why is more important because it means you can take steps to figuring out the next thing. I can not only answer why peanut butter isn’t so great, but also conceptualize the psychological, digestive, and hormonal changes that accompany each tablespoon. That’s what Burger and Starbird were suggesting when they wrote about knowing something deeply.

If for example, you want to learn music they suggest more than just reading notes. “When you learn anything, go for depth and make it rock solid. If you learn a piece of music for the piano, then instead of just memorizing finger movements, learn to hear each note and understand the structure of the piece. Ask yourself, can I play the notes of the right hand while just humming the notes of the left hand.”

We are never done learning and we are never done learning deeply.

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