“Those ‘back burner’ thoughts, the ones the brain isn’t quite sure about yet, may cook the slowest yet they often manage to be the tastiest when they come out.”Criss Jami
The ways that we interact with knowledge, skills, emotions, tools, and behaviors.
What if I told you that there are two levels that we (you, me, your mom, your coach, the guy on the corner begging for change, everybody) interact with information? This may be a simplification of real-life but bear with it for a bit because it can be a really valuable way to create change more effectively in your life.
On the one hand, you have your intellectual understandings. Even though most of us will never interact with subatomic particles, we were each given an understanding of how protons, electrons, and neutrons work (remember that science class in high school?). And, like so many bits of knowledge that we were given in school, it’s not something we ever really needed since then, other than when we are helping some poor unfortunate kid in school through their science homework.
Just think of all the wonderful bits of information you’ve got that you don’t use for real-life applications. Beyond what you were given in school, there are all the things you picked up ‘on the job’ from those amazing training videos that you spent your first week trudging through, or through the leadership development seminars and corporate retreats where you dutifully followed along and dreamed of the next meal in the day.
These aren’t just related to the information being thrown at us either. Plenty of us study things we may have no intention of actually using. Languages, physics, the ins and outs of cryptocurrency, football strategy, etc. Most of us have numerous things that we think about without actually practicing.
On the other hand, you have your practical understandings. These are the things you do even if you don’t understand why you do them that way. A lot of this is the actual training that we received in our jobs – being thrown in the deep end and learning how to swim (figuratively, but it works literally as well). Maybe what you learned, practically, at school was to find out what each teacher wanted and turn in exactly that, regardless of whether you retained any of the information the following year.
Regardless of how or where you got them, your practical understandings are the things you know without thinking about them. Each of us has wildly different practical skills, emotions, behaviors, and tools that we bring to the table. They are the things that we actually do when we aren’t paying attention. Try asking a carpenter who has been in the business for 30 years WHY they put a wall up in a certain way. They will tell you a ton of things that aren’t taught in books and can only be understood by somebody who has put up hundreds of walls.
Why does this matter?
How often have you found yourself knowing what you ‘should’ do, but ending up doing something else instead? Here’s an example:
Intellectually, I know that I should meditate every day. All the studies say it leads to greater happiness and contentment, the people I know who meditate regularly sing its praises, and deep down I truly want to feel more happiness and contentment in my life.
And yet, I have struggled for years to get a regular meditation practice. I read so many books and articles on the internet about meditation that it seemed I knew more about it than the people who were actually practicing it. But even with all that knowledge, I wasn’t meditating. Why? Because I didn’t have a practical understanding of meditation. Every time I would sit down and try to ‘calm my mind’ or ‘pay attention to the breath’ or ‘use a mantra’ or any of the other things that I had read and that I knew should work I would get super frustrated/distracted/bored/sleepy and give up. After a couple of tries – I gave up and figured it just wasn’t for me.
Now, look at all the things you know you should do but don’t. How’s your diet? How much do you exercise? Why aren’t you meditating? What’s standing between you and being a more effective leader at work or a better parent at home? No matter who you are, there are those things that you are so aware would better your life and yet you struggle to make them a reality.
Or, look at the things you do but know you shouldn’t. Eating just one more cookie, going down the youtube rabbit hole, etc etc etc.
One and/or the other.
The good news is that you aren’t stuck this way. You are an amazing human, who can change all sorts of things including how you understand things. This is where we start to have some fun, or where you can get really frustrated.
One important thing to know is that we can know something intellectually and eventually move to having a practical understanding of it. We can also do it the other way around – starting with a practical understanding of something and then moving to an intellectual understanding.
So, you can have practical or an intellectual OR you can have both! The way that I generally look at it with clients is that if you do something and wish you didn’t you could benefit from deepening your intellectual understanding of that thing.
If you want to do something but struggle to then you could probably benefit from deepening your practical understanding of that thing.
So how do we do that?
The trick to getting from one to the other.
Let’s start with moving something from practical to intellectual – the trick with these is to work at understanding better why you do them. Diving deeper, reading more books, searching the internet, and paying attention to when something really resonates with you is how most of us do this. Depending on the thing, this can also be a REALLY awesome space to interact with a life coach/therapist/helper of some kind. Often I’ll invite clients to write out the ‘biography’ of this behavior, identifying when/where it first started showing up in their lives, why it made a lot of sense to have that behavior then, and creating a clear picture of why it makes less sense to have that behavior now.
The important thing with this process though is to take it off of auto-pilot and start spending more mental cycles thinking about and trying to understand, that thing. What tends to happen is that once you create a more meaningful understanding of that thing you naturally start changing the behavior.
On the other hand, when we are trying to move something from intellectual to practical, we would tend to do the opposite. Instead of reading more books, more articles, and deepening your understanding of the thing – you want to simplify and practice. Practice, practice practice, because practice makes permanent. This is where accountabilibuddies come in super handy because accountability with others is one of the biggest tools for sticking to a practice. Whether it’s meditation, telling our spouse that we love them more, being a more compassionate leader, or simply eating more salads – committing to practice, especially if it’s fun, is the best way to turn a ‘should’ into a ‘do’.
My thoughts on prioritizing one over the other
Here’s my $.02: in this day and age and with all of the information that we now find literally at our fingertips, the challenge for most of us isn’t finding enough information; it’s finding TOO much information. Because of this, I think the biggest challenge and the most fruitful pursuit is to step away from intellectualizing the things that matter most to you and step into creating meaningful practice so that you get more of those things in your life. It’s so easy to get lost in research and self-diagnosis on the internet that most of us struggle to truly consume information that is valuable for us. Practicing, however, is going to always be valuable as long as you are paying attention to the effects of that practice. You’ll find out what works for you.
That being said, if you are focused on taking some of the good practices that you have and sharing that knowledge with others then that is a scenario in which I would prioritize intellectualizing. If you are an amazing leader and you want to teach others to be good leaders you’ll need more than just ‘practice’ to give them. If you are teaching your kids how to be as healthy as you, you should understand how what you do makes you healthy so that you can help them understand it.
That’s it for today – now go practice!
A quick P.S. for the helpers and accountabilibuddies out there
Many of you probably realized that either of these tools can be used in just about any situation. I can intellectualize the reasons why I eat so terribly, or I can practice healthier ways of eating. I can intellectualize why I think I’m an imposter or I can practice seeing myself differently. In real life, when helping others, there isn’t a ‘right’ way to do this. You need to gauge which strategy is going to work most effectively with your buddy. When I’m in doubt I start with practice and see where we run into roadblocks.