Is Knowledge All Powerful?

knowledge is power

It has often been said that knowledge is power, and for good reason.

Knowledge can enable us to improve, protect, help, or hurt, and which of these we choose can decide the meaning in our lives.

The question is, though, is knowing actionable or is it just the first step to more knowing, and do those steps lead to effective results? In short, is there a disconnect between learning and doing?

I’ll give you a real life example. One of my very good friends with a Ph.D. and two Masters degrees decided he wanted to learn to code at the same time as my co-founder a year and a half ago. This is a brilliant guy. He came in to my office with a whole stack of books explaining how it works, and today, he knows all about it. He has a very good understanding and he can answer questions for you.

However, he hasn’t built anything. He’s tried and it hasn’t gone so well. He “knows” all about it, he’s studied it, but he can’t “do” it. (My theory is the fact that he was taught “not to get the answer wrong” is the impediment.) Meanwhile, my co-founder screws up stuff left and right then fixes it and makes it work, and I’ll be damned if she isn’t starting to get good at this. Do you see my point?

Our learning structures weren’t traditionally built to learn from getting the answer wrong, but instead to get the answer right at any cost. (More on this from Sir Ken Robinson.) Unfortunately, the accelerated environment that we now find ourselves in doesn’t lend itself well to the fear of wrong answers.

As those in the world of startup ventures know, you have to gravitate toward trying stuff out and failing, and then learn quickly in order to iterate. Being scared to get the answer wrong adds too much time to this equation. I’ve struggled with this issue myself, but even Steve Jobs, as picky as he was about getting every product right, stressed not being afraid to ship and take risks or make mistakes, because that’s the only way you really learn.  Much like natural selection, in order to evolve, ideas need to become mistakes just like animals need to die.

The point is that going forward, there may need to be more emphasis on getting people to learn coping and adapting skills to help close the knowing/doing gap.

My conclusion? Perhaps the real answer is this:

All knowledge is potentially all powerful, but it depends on what you do with it.

Go forth learners, and don’t be afraid to change the world.


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We Are ALL In the Education Business

In the late 90′s, I finally got my first cellphone. I fought it for years.
Learn to Swim from Peers

Photo Credit: Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig

The idea that I would be on the phone during my quiet time or drive time talking (and probably working) did not appeal to me in the least. Sure there were social benefits, but I wanted time to recharge, unplug, meditate, and collect my thoughts.  In short, I wanted down time.  Fast forward to 2014.

Now, it would be almost impossible to live without this device.  Why is that? (Long live down time, rest in peace.)

Ask yourself: have you ever gone a day without your smartphone or mobile device?  If you unplugged from the net and social media, how long would you last–two days perhaps, a week?

Let’s make this a multiple choice question.

With no mobile device, would you feel:

A. Isolated
B. Uninformed
C. Vulnerable
D. All of the above

For many, the answer is D.

In the end, I needed a cellphone because I couldn’t wait to know things any more.  I needed to reach people wherever I was, at times to keep in touch for social reasons, but more often to get things done or grab a quick update from someone to assess and learn what needed to be done next.

As I write this blog, I’m finding it interesting that there are some keywords I just can’t avoid.  This is not for SEO purposes (sorry Google), but rather because I can only describe what I’m saying by using these words and they keep popping up.  Do you see a pattern yet?

The fact is, I can’t talk about connecting with other people without using the words “know” and “learn.” (Well whaddaya know?)  If you think about it (“think”–there’s another one), it’s engrained in our social language.

In fact, I hate to admit it, but it’s no longer just me on the continuous learning bandwagon.  How many times have you seen the word “webinar” in your email box lately?  There sure seem to be a lot of free classes these days.  And how many seminars have you gone to this year?  It seems like a lot of expense to put those on, doesn’t it?

I went to a couple of free business strategy meetings and M&A seminars earlier this year, and I learned a lot.  I’m not being facitious, I really did.  It was a valuable experience, and I couldn’t help being struck by how much they had to educate me in order for me to become their future customer.  And that’s when it hit me:

We are all in the education business now.  Every one of us.

Whether you’re educating your future customers, current customers, peers, co-workers, employees, investors, the press, the general public, or friends and family; if you want to stay relevant, people need to understand what you’re doing, how it works, and why it’s important.  Things are moving too fast for people to pay attention to anything if they don’t understand its value.

I also equate this idea with the reason we received so many questions recently at Lrngo from users wanting to know how to promote their expertise and themselves as speakers; which became the subject of two Lrngo blogs earlier this year.  So many people with expertise wanted to gain speaking experience and promote themselves by giving presentations, webinars and classes on their topics, that we had to dig in and come up with the information.

This trend isn’t as much about 15 minutes of fame as it is about survival of the fittest.  The consultant, service provider or company that doesn’t stay ahead of the curve by educating their target market on why they are needed and what makes them different won’t be around very long.

As we shift to the reputation economy and social media shines the spotlight on the expertise of individuals, the move toward constantly educating and re-educating each other is not likely to subside any time soon.  In the words of Denis Waitley, “<you can> never become so much of an expert that you stop gaining expertise.”  You have to stay ahead of the curve.

In late 2014, I finally joined Twitter. I fought it for years. It’s amazing how much you can learn from one sentence.

Follow me on Twitter @davidcbrake

Knowledge is a Commodity

So I started thinking about how to explain what brought me to the conclusion that knowledge is a commodity and how was going to implement a platform for this, and I realized that it has actually been a common theme throughout my life.  Of course, the purpose of this blog is not to bore you with my life story, but…well, too bad I’m going to bore you with my life story.  :-)

It all started with music. Like a lot of kids, I gravitated towards what I was good at.  In my case, when I was growing up and heard songs I liked on the radio, I could usually play & sing them by hearing them.  It was just something I did and enjoyed without very much difficulty.  When I “learned,” it was because I was either learning through private instruction, or performing with others who were older and better than me.  Research was practicing, learning from an instructor was training, but playing for and with others actually “doing it” was social and learning at the same time.  That’s what provided the benchmarks, as well as the impetus for me to research and train harder.

This early experience eventually led me to write a thesis called “All the World is a Stage: the Dynamics of One on One Training vs Group Immersion.”  The idea is that you train more intensely one on one so you can interact at a higher level when you are in a social group, and the larger the group (or “stage” so to speak – expandable up to the whole world), the more competition, and therefore the more intensely you train.  I hypothesized that one could apply this to all forms of learning; everything from the Olympics to languages (ie: if you are in France, you will not only learn French quicker because you are there “doing it,” but also because you will try harder to learn when you are training).

Whether or not the idea that effort or assimilation is directly proportionate to competition and size of a group is flawed, what I found interesting was the extent to which these dynamics feed off of each other and how they are inter-related, and the percentages of learning that take place in social group or immersion settings vs one on one training vs research/practice.  At the time though, I didn’t acknowledge the extent to which one on one learning is also social–which brings me back to…that’s right, my boring life story.  :-)  (Stay with me here, it will all make sense.)

I earned money to go to college by gigging in professional bands the summer before and the summer after my first year of college.  Without getting into how much I learned performing vs how much I learned in school (almost equal but very different), at that time, I chose to continue to play professionally rather than complete my degree.  However, a few years later as a professional, I found myself having to compete with better players on larger stages, and felt like I would have also greatly benefited from a strong university program.  Unfortunately, the choices at that point weren’t good for a working musician.  To stop working full-time and go into debt for school was not a viable option on a musician’s salary.

Looking back now, the situation reminds me of a story I heard.  There was this guy who wanted to go to MIT (skip ahead if you’ve heard this one before) but couldn’t get in and didn’t have the money.  He borrowed a small amount to attend a nearby Art Institute and learned how to create a very realistic school ID.  He used his skills to manufacture one for MIT and attended their classes, and although he never got credentials on paper, once he started working in the real world no one cared.  He took his studies seriously, and became a good enough software engineer that he always had work.  He had no money, learned, and ultimately beat the system.  (I wouldn’t have tried this myself, because with my luck I would have just ended up in the slammer owing a lot of money to MIT!)

So I didn’t plan anything near as devious, but I did contact the professor at my target university who was the head of the department directly.  I explained the situation to see if he would teach me privately, and he did.  I learned the curriculum directly from him (a credit to both his goodwill and teaching ability), and reaped the benefits in less than one third the time at a small fraction of the cost.  What I didn’t realize at the time, was that I had also accidentally learned how to teach the curriculum that he taught me.  I found this out later, and then began teaching what I knew to others through private lessons.

From that experience, the questions eventually started pouring into my head.  How closely are learning something and learning how to teach it related?  Was it just me, or can anyone transfer one to the other? (Still an ongoing question BTW.)  If I learn “how to teach”, can I then teach anything I learn?  For me it stood to reason the answer was yes, but I wanted to find out.  I did, and eventually became a full-time instructor.

At one point I may have gone a bit far in my experiments, and I began teaching in classrooms when I had little (ok no) credentials for this.  I did know the subject, but had no classroom experience or training, so I decided to do some preliminary consulting with the best classroom teachers I could find to learn a thing or two before going in.  After a couple weeks, I quickly found a job where they had been through three teachers in the past 18 months (it turned out none of them could keep the class engaged – baptism by fire!), and I just started “doing it.”  Sure I made mistakes in the beginning, but I made sure to document everything and keep track of what was working and why.  In the end, I turned out to be the first teacher for that subject and in that school location they had ever considered successful, and I continued at the school for two years.

As another side note (can I do that?  Where is the blog handbook…): I have to say IMHO other than knowing the subject matter, a short stint in comedy turned out to be the best training possible for me as an uninitiated teacher going into a first time classroom setting.  Not to entertain or even to keep attention of the class, but because it constantly makes one hyper-sensitive to gauging audience reaction and instantly knowing if they are “with you” and “getting” what you’re saying.  In comedy, if the audience doesn’t understand or “get” something, seconds seem like hours, so you learn to redirect them and communicate very quickly in a different way that makes you understood or else you “die.”  If I had one bit of out of the box thinking advice to universities, I would encourage experimenting with limited standup comedy training in education curriculums and then measuring results.  (I’d be very interested to know if anyone is actually out there doing that!)

Anyway, all that is to say, my own private instruction experiences ultimately weren’t just social because I was interacting with another person when learning, but because there was also a paying it forward aspect from teaching others in turn.

And so it went: from martial arts to business accounting to running a record label, I always felt like given time and money limitations, I got more bang for my buck by just doing things and paying an expert of my choosing to teach me how.  This, in turn, also helped the individual instructor to supplement their income at a time and location that was convenient for them, and eventually enabled me to pass on to others what I had learned in the new role of instructor.  No, it shouldn’t be the only way—but it should be a choice everyone has—whether used to supplement their classroom experience, or to learn a new skill on the side.  It is the future, and the future of education will be about choices.