How to Gain Deep Understanding

If somebody screwed with a bicycle so that the handlebars worked in the opposite way to usual (left goes right, and right goes left), do you think you could ride it? Many people do, according to Smarter Every Day’s Destin Sandlin. Until they get on the bike.

In his video, Destin illuminates a valuable insight: knowledge doesn’t equal understanding. He had the knowledge that he needed to ride the backwards bike—turn the handlebars in the opposite way to usual—but he didn’t have the understanding (or the deep understanding) of how to do it.

The difference between the two concepts is key. Knowledge can be considered as an acquaintance with facts or principles, a familiarity or awareness of something. Understanding goes to the very heart of a concept, requiring a thorough and comprehensive grasp. Often, we can’t explain why we understand something, as it requires an aspect of intelligence that is separate from language. Riding a bike is an example of this—the most articulate person on the planet couldn’t teach a child to ride a bike using just words, as it requires spatial and bodily-kinesthetic skill. Only by getting on the bike itself can the kid begin the journey to BMX-champion stardom.

There’s nothing wrong with being a dabbling dilettante; engaging in multiple things can help you to discover what you’re passionate about. Curiosity can lead you to great places. If we want a true and deep understanding though, it requires a lot more than skimming the surface. You can’t read a Nietzsche book and expect to be an expert on existentialism, or to see an immediate positive impact in your own life. You’ll need to read similar books, analyse and evaluate the content thoroughly, and actively try to apply the concepts in your day-to-day. Passive reading just isn’t enough, even with a photographic memory. Deep understanding takes engagement, hard work and commitment.

Being actively engaged in something is one of the few ways to promote higher-order thinking, and this can only happen if you’re either genuinely interested in the topic, or are being pushed forward by a strong external motivation. Active learning is an effective educational process being used by universities the world over.

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The effectiveness of active learning, from the University of South Australia

Ways to promote deep understanding

Do the thing

Want to learn how to surf? Get some surfing lessons, and then go surfing. Want to become a mathlete? Take some online courses, and then do math. Want to relate to people more deeply? Ask questions, and try to put yourself in their shoes. None of these things can be understood by just passively learning about them. Nobody taught you how to speak—as a child you instinctively knew that by making noises, you’d get what you wanted. You’re using the same method years later, just in a more articulate fashion (hopefully), and you learned it by doing.

You might be able to the list the amazing benefits of mindfulness meditation, but unless you actively engage in the practice itself, you’re never going to reap any of them. This is the simplest but most effective method for gaining deep understanding.

Apply it to problems in your life

Everybody has problems, and it can be difficult knowing how to fix them. Progress can only be made by giving something a try, and observing the results. By trying something, and evaluating the attempt afterwards, you’re gaining a deeper understanding of your chosen solution, regardless of whether it was a complete failure. Even abstract concepts of philosophy require a degree of practical action in order for us to properly understand them. Take utilitarianism (the idea that the end justifies the means) as an example. You might believe that chastising a rude shop assistant is the morally right thing to do, because they might adjust their behaviour towards people in future. But until you give it a try, observe the results, and then evaluate its effectiveness, you’ll never fully understand whether utilitarianism is the right approach in this example.

“I believe that the school must represent present life – life as real and vital to the child as that which he carries on in the home, in the neighborhood, or on the playground.”

John Dewey

“Theory without practice leads to an empty idealism, and action without philosophical reflection leads to mindless activism.”

John L. Elias and Sharan B. Merriam

Discuss and debate

Chatting with your spouse, friends and colleagues about a topic helps to cement the ideas in your brain, in addition to securing some much needed human intimacy. The associative nature of our brains allows discussion that adapts and diverts from the original point, strengthening the neural pathways surrounding the central topic, and advancing understanding in the process. We can learn a shitload from our friends, if we’re willing to listen and engage. Have the courage to be vulnerable and say what you really want to say; what you’re genuinely interested in. You can only get through so much weather small-talk because you find yourself going insane. Deep, meaningful conversation is a major factor for successful relationships, while at the same time promoting thorough understanding of the examined topics.

Analyse and evaluate

Pulling something apart into its core components—whether an engine, or a philosophical concept—helps to understand how the parts make up the whole. Some things are multi-faceted and incredibly complex—breaking them down into smaller chunks is an effective way to understand them better. We must critically analyse the details of a thing if we want to really know it, and compare and contrast it to things of a similar nature.

Evaluation is just as important. Only by reflecting on the value of what you’ve done can you determine whether it’s worth doing again.

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The difference between surface and deep understanding, from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University

Repetition

There’s a million cliches that espouse this message, and for good reason. Only by repeating something can you build the neural brain connections required for memory, and networks to similar concepts in your brain.

All of your senses can be used for repetition learning—by reading, watching videos, or listening to podcasts about the same concept, you’re forging valuable pathways that will promote understanding, while helping to keep things interesting through the use of different mediums.

“Neurons that fire together wire together.”

Donald Hebb, Canadian neuropsychologist

Write it down

Writing your ideas about a subject will help you to remember it, and formulate different notions surrounding it. Producing emotional writing—how you actually feel about the topic—also makes it more memorable. Dry, purely rational writing should be left to university assignments; these are your personal thoughts and feelings about a topic.

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It’s easy to skim the surface of a subject without truly understanding it. You could be the pub-quiz champion of your town but actually know very little about your memorised facts. If you’re willing to dive deeper, with dedication and hard work you can turn simple knowledge into deep, fulfilling understanding.

How To Become a Masterful Writer, with John Gardner

John-Gardner.jpgJohn Gardner – Image from Writer’s Write

It’s difficult to find someone more refreshingly forthright, and with such clarity of expression, than American writing teacher John Gardner. After a long and successful teaching career, Gardner penned a book on how to write great stories—The Art of Fiction—which is held in high acclaim for its precision and effectiveness as a writing guide. As the title suggests, the book’s primary goal is to offer advice on how to write great fiction, though many of its lessons extend to writing in general, making the book a goldmine of knowledge for writers. Though often loftily arrogant and overly critical, in The Art of Fiction, John Gardner attempts to improve our writing abilities, with resounding success.

For Gardner, a key component of quality, captivating writing is the author’s ability to produce clear images in the reader’s imagination, by using vivid and tangible real-world language.

“A scene will not be vivid if the writer gives too few details to stir and guide the reader’s imagination; neither will it be vivid if the language the writer uses is abstract instead of concrete. If the writer says ‘creatures’ instead of ‘snakes,’ if in an attempt to impress with with fancy talk he uses Latinate terms like ‘hostile manuevers’ instead of sharp Anglo-Saxon words like ‘thrash,’ ‘coil,’ ‘spit,’ ‘hiss,’ and ‘writhe,’ if instead of the desert’s sand and rocks he speaks of the snakes’ ‘inhospitable abode,’ the reader will hardly know what picture of conjure up on his mental screen. These two faults, insufficient detail and abstraction where what is needed is concrete detail, are common—in fact all but universal—in amateur writing.”—John Gardner, The Art of Fiction

Where possible, writing should evoke discernible imagery in the mind of the reader, who is being led on a curious journey, sentence-by-sentence. Writing that lacks concrete imagery can be dreadfully dull, like reading a scientific thesis concerned only with the driest and most serious of matters. One of the joys of experiencing great writing is the process of having your head filled with colourful, vibrant imagery, constantly twisting and warping anew, a compelling, elemental topic threaded through the entire process. Expository writing – the style used to explain concepts – becomes alluring when vivid language is used. This doesn’t mean that every sentence must be packed with dramatic, intense imagery, as though narrating an edge-of-seat thriller, but should rather be peppered with the occasional rich example to keep things interesting. This also makes writing itself more pleasurable, urging us to return to our desks to gleefully bash out another thousand-word masterpiece.

Colourful detail is important because it transports us to a place of ethereal wonder – a dream within our own minds, that we happily traverse in the hope of discovering something treasured.

“If we carefully inspect our physical experience as we read, we discover that the importance of physical detail is that it creates for us a kind of dream, a rich and vivid play in the mind.”—John Gardner

We cannot expect to create an enchanting dream for our reader with a limited vocabulary, or by repeating the same words over and over. A dazzling piece of work will be infused with a great variety of words, chosen not just for their precise meaning, but also for their sing-song rhythm and visual vividness. Stunted vocabulary only gets us so far.

“Limited vocabulary, like short legs on a pole-vaulter, builds in a natural barrier to progress beyond a certain point.”—John Gardner

Another aspect to be toyed and experimented with is sentence length, which can affect the rhythm and emotion of your writing, depending on the desired effect.

“Short sentences give other effects. Also sentence fragments. They can be trenchant, punchy. They can suggest weariness. They can increase the drabness of a drab scene. Used for an unworthy reason, as here, they can be boring. Between these extremes, the endless sentence and the very short sentence, lies a world of variation, a world every writer must eventually explore.”—John Gardner

“By keeping out a careful ear for rhythm, the writer can control the emotion of his sentences with considerable subtlety.”—John Gardner

Though it’s difficult for us to explain why, sometimes we write a sentence that just feels right, sitting snugly within our work, with a level of comfort so elevated as to make us envious. If we’re dissatisfied with a sentence, for the sake of becoming better writers, we must commit the time to ruthless splitting and reworking, until we’ve created something with greater clarity and appeal. With steady practice comes mastery.

“Turning sentences around, trying various combinations of the fundamental elements, will prove invaluable in the end, not just because it leads to better sentences but also because over the years it teaches certain basic ways of fixing rhythm that will work again on other, superficially quite dissimilar sentences. I don’t know myself—and I suspect most writers would say the same—what it is that I do, what formulas I use for switching bad sentences around to make better ones; but I do it all the time, less laboriously every year, trying to creep up on the best ways of getting things said.”—John Gardner

Technical skill isn’t the only thing required to become a masterful writer. We must take the time to satiate our heads with the insightful musings of others, sparking neurological connections and creating something new. As with the process of writing itself, if we have any desire to become experts, this requires relentless practice.

“In order to achieve mastery he must read widely and deeply and must write not just carefully but continually, thoughtfully assessing and reassessing what he writes, because practice, for the writer as for the concert pianist, is the heart of the matter.”—John Gardner

A curious disposition is advantageous to the writer, as it causes her to seek out valuable sources of information, drink them in fully, and becoming a more rounded, knowledgeable human, with better worldly awareness and emotional intelligence. Interesting people are interested people – an essential trait of the writer who wants to create compelling work.

“Part of our interest as we read is in learning how the world works; how the conflicts we share with the writer and all other human beings can be resolved, if at all; what values can we affirm and, in general, what the moral risks are.”—John Gardner

“Anything we read for pleasure we read because it interests us. One would think, since this is so, that the first question any young writer would ask himself, when he’s trying to decide what to write, what be ‘What can I think of that’s interesting?'”—John Gardner

Throwing ourselves into the world with courageous zeal, tasting every experience, and committing fully to our lives (the good and the bad,) helps to develop an intricate, multi-faceted character, filled with wisdom, lending an unmistakable magic to our writing. We’re able to understand the world, offering insightful, original, and resonant frames of reference for our readers.

“On reflection we see that the great writer’s authority consists of two elements. The first we may call, loosely, his sane humanness; that is, his trustworthiness as a judge of things, a stability rooted in the sum of those complex qualities of his character and personality (wisdom, generosity, compassion, strength of will) to which we respond, as we respond to what is best in our friends, with instant recognition and admiration, saying, “Yes, you’re right, that’s how it is!” The second element, or perhaps I should say force, is the writer’s absolute trust (not blind faith) in his own aesthetic judgments and instincts, a trust grounded partly in his intelligence and sensitivity—his ability to perceive and understand the world around him—and partly in his experience as a craftsman; that is (by his own harsh standards), his knowledge, drawn from long practice, of what will work and what will not.”—John Gardner

John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction is filled with gems, which the studious writer can use to become a more skilled and engaging artist. With the right knowledge, a ton of effort, and a little help from Gardner, we can gradually ascend to mastery within our field.

Why Kids Are the Masters of Existence

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Photo by Robert Collins on Unsplash

“Time is a game played beautifully by children.”

Heraclitus

Life has a tendency to grind us down over the years. Slowly, relentlessly, our limited stay on earth becomes ever more serious, carving deep-set, knitted lines between our once-smooth brows. Our muscles take on a steady tenseness, only able to be softened by the skilled hands of a Thai masseuse. The near-constant anxiety that racks our exhausted brains zaps the dazzle from our once vibrant hair.

It wasn’t always like this. As kids, we had a propensity for joy. We were able to just live in the moment. Young kids have no concept of past or future—they seem to understand, intuitively, that the only tangible thing that exists is now. You’ll never find a young child wracked in anguish about yesterday’s mishap at play school. Nor will you find them frantically worrying about the upcoming visit from their distant, straw-eating, hillbilly cousins.

Kids don’t have any responsibilities, of course, and while this is certainly a factor in their carefree attitude, it’s far from the whole story. Children just seem to have an unwavering commitment to their lives—they never hold back. When a young girl builds a sandcastle, she builds the absolute shit out of it. When she straps on her wellingtons and jumps in a freshly formed puddle, she jumps as high as her legs will allow. When she gets upset, she cries her heart out. There’s simply no time to worry when you’re so busy living.

Why are kids able to become so effortlessly engaged, and how can we imitate the joyous little bastards?

Curious, mindful sensing

“Children see magic because they look for it.

Christopher Moore

An uncountable number of mothers across the globe have, at one point, dashed across a room to prevent their child from putting something disgusting in their mouth. Kids love to use their senses to explore the world. What does that mud-ridden, juicy worm taste like? How does this delicate, floral-covered vase feel when I run my fingers over it? What will happen if I squeeze this ginger cat’s tail?

As we become familiar with the sight, texture and taste of the world around us, it somehow becomes less special. We stop paying attention to the stunning, sun-kissed majesty of our city. Our minds are elsewhere while we wolf down salt-covered, freshly roasted potatoes. The small, thoughtful, love-filled gestures from our partner begin to go unnoticed. We start to take everything for granted.

Young kids find magic and novelty in the world because they pay attention. Their Magellan-like exploration of their surroundings aren’t accompanied by an endlessly buzzing smartphone that yanks on their attention. They aren’t conjuring plans for their next activity while delicately picking a ruby-red geranium in the local park. They do one thing at a time, and they do it wholeheartedly. Kids are the embodiment of mindfulness. They stare so intently that it can make you blush, absorbing every single blemish on your face, and giggling afterward.

“The soul is healed by being with children.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky

The fact that everything is new and shiny to a kid does make things more exciting, but we can recapture a little of this magic by being more mindful and curious about the world around us.

Instead of just glancing at something, really look at it. Consider its shape, texture and colour. If it isn’t a human who’ll get offended, touch it. Contemplate how it feels against your nerve-packed fingertips. Notice the sound waves that are hurtling and ricocheting their way through the world, which by chance, happen to reach your meticulously evolved ears. Though you may experience the same thing every day, you’re probably still missing a great deal of delightful detail.

Our world has profound depth and boundless beauty, and we just happen to have the right equipment to experience it. Kids know how to use this equipment properly—they’re the masters of their senses. As we grow older, we live more inside our own heads —an existence of imagination, projection and worry, with no concrete reality. The antidote is simply, and wholeheartedly, to pay attention to the world once more. Put your fucking phone away and spend some time absorbing your exquisite, improbable planet.

“How is it possible that a being with such sensitive jewels as the eyes, such enchanted musical instruments as the ears, and such a fabulous arabesque of nerves as the brain can experience itself as anything less than a god? And, when you consider that this incalculably subtle organism is inseparable from the still more marvellous patterns of its environment—from the minutest electrical designs to the whole company of the galaxies—how is it conceivable that this incarnation of all eternity can be bored with being?”

Alan Watts

Even something that you don’t want to do can become intriguing if you pay attention, from a position of open-minded curiosity. Like a caterpillar in its cocoon, curiosity has a way of transforming the mundane into something beautiful and extraordinary. By withholding our judgment and becoming a little more inquisitive about the daily activities of our lives – scrubbing the dishes, making the bed, brushing our teeth, etc. – they become a little more pleasing. Curious attention turns us into participants, rather than spectators, in our own lives. Kids do this naturally, and this is one of the reasons why they’re so joyful.

Pledge yourself fully to each and every moment, as a child does. If you’re sad, be sad. If you’re irritated, be irritated. Kids don’t try to escape their emotions the way that adults do; they seem to understand that soon enough, whatever is bothering them will be over. Our emotional life is a never-ending rollercoaster ride of peaks and troughs—the highs can’t exist without the lows.

“Look at children. Of course they may quarrel, but generally speaking they do not harbor ill feelings as much or as long as adults do. Most adults have the advantage of education over children, but what is the use of an education if they show a big smile while hiding negative feelings deep inside? Children don’t usually act in such a manner. If they feel angry with someone, they express it, and then it is finished. They can still play with that person the following day.”

The Dahai Lama

Be content with what you have

“Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.”

Lao Tzu

As we mature from teenagers to adults, responsibility bears down on us like a truck with a sleeping driver. Suddenly, we’re no longer able to freeload from our parents, and the obligations that we’re burdened with make life much more serious. Kids don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from, or the security of their job after a recent company takeover. Their basic needs are fulfilled, often thanklessly, without question.

As adults, we’re always going to feel the squeezing pressure of earning a living, but we can minimise that pressure by learning to be content with what we have. How happier will an extra few thousand dollars a year really make us? Is it worth consistently working until the small hours of the night, and depriving yourself of sleep to get it? Most of us intuitively know the correct answer to this question, and yet we do it nonetheless.

“Many people lose the small joys in the hope for the big happiness.”

Pearl S. Buck

While playing with a toy, young kids aren’t putting plans in place to get a bigger, better toy. They’re too busy living and experiencing what’s in front of them. Ambition is just a foolish concept pursued by grown-ups. Why strive for more when you can’t appreciate what you already have?

“He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.”

Socrates

Perpetual, irrational seeking of more and more stuff is also resulting in the dreadful consequence of a smothered and poisoned planet, which has reached a crucial tipping point. Materialism has even shown to cause a decrease in personal well-being. We assume that more stuff means more happiness, but it’s a tragic mistake that might end up killing millions of people.

By learning to be content with what we have, our greedy desires for more will lessen. We won’t need a promotion in order to buy that enticing, V8 sports car. Our financial responsibility, and the pressure that comes with it, are reduced to something much easier to handle. Like kids, we can begin to fully appreciate and become involved with what’s in front of us.

Psychology has shown that keeping a daily gratitude diary is a great way to become more content with your life, because it forces you to focus on what’s good, rather than what’s lacking.

Treat life as a game

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Photo by Robert Collins on Unsplash

“[The world is] an arabesque of such stunning rhythm and a plot so intriguing that we are drawn by its web into a state of involvement where we forget that it is a game. We become fascinated to the point where the cheering and the booing are transformed into intense love and hate, or delight and terror, ecstatic orgasm or screaming meemies. All made out of on-and-off or black-and-white, pulsed, stuttered, diagrammed mosaiced, syncopated, shaded, jolted, tangoed, and lilted through all possible measures and dimensions. It is simultaneously the purest nonsense and the utmost artistry.”

Alan Watts

Unless you’re religious, you’d probably agree with the fact that life has no ultimate meaning. As such, it’s our challenging and enduring task to imbue it with meaning that’s wholly personal to us. We decide what makes life meaningful, and while this absolute freedom can swing between being crippling and liberating, it’s an undeniable and staggeringly beautiful fact.

Life doesn’t have to be so serious. Hindus believe that life is a game, born out of creative play by a divine god. Games are supposed to be enjoyed, not played to be won and conquered, like an empire-builder with stunted self-confidence. A game is played for the enjoyment one experiences while playing; there’s no end goal in sight—it’s the playing that counts. One doesn’t dance in order to reach the end of the song, we dance because we enjoy the process. The end game is a fool’s game.

For children, their whole existence can be described as a game, and their unremitting investment in playing through the good and bad parts of it are what makes them masterful participants.

Our existence is only serious because we assume it to be. By treating life as a game, it becomes more nonchalantly light-hearted, and our petty little worries are destroyed by a fresher, brighter perspective.

Do what you love

If a child is drawn towards something, they’ll use whatever means necessary to get it. There’s no need for them to rationalise why their heart is set on certain toys, activities or people, they just want them and enjoy them. Not much changes with the approach of adulthood—certain things just happen to intrigue us, which is why settling into a personally appealing career is so critical to our happiness. Kids don’t usually do things that they don’t want to do—why the hell would they? They’re motivated intrinsically, solely by what interests them.

Of course, gaining and maintaining employment isn’t quite as simple. It’s doubtful that we’ll work jobs that we love all the time. This seems to be an increasingly common assumption that should be expelled for the sake of our mental health—a utopia-like job, perfectly suited to you, is highly unlikely to exist. Even if it did, it’d be almost impossible to find. Instead, we should focus our efforts on finding employment that is good enough; on a role that fulfils us for the most part, but will probably still irritate us at times.

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We all lost something on the way to becoming adults, stolen by an education that equipped us for survival, but robbed us of our enthusiasm. Though the responsibilities of life will forever be a burden, they don’t have to drag us to dark and depressing depths. As difficult as it can be to recognise, our existence contains much that we should be grateful for.

Anxiety doesn’t have to be the most familiar emotion in our arsenal. Our passion for life can be rekindled by imitating the kids, those masters of existence, for which time is a game played beautifully.