Waiting for inspiration and creativity
Sometimes we feel that however hard we try, we’re not getting anywhere. At other times, we suddenly find inspiration and achieve a breakthrough. To understand this sensation of uneven progress, it is worthwhile considering some of the ways in which we learn and find new knowledge.
Types of knowledge
In general terms, there are two ways that we know things. One way of knowing is when we feel that “that’s just the way things are”. The other way of knowing is when we have been taught information, which we accept as being true.
For example, the knowledge that a car is about to run you over, is not verbally expressed in your thoughts. If you look up while crossing the road and you see that you are in a collision course with a car, it is unlikely that the following will go through your mind, “It would appear that given my direction of travel and the car’s direction of travel, and considering our respective velocities, it is probable that the car and myself will collide in 3 seconds, which would result in severe injury.”
Instead, it is more likely that you will jump out of the way as fast as possible, without thinking about your high-school applied maths. This type of knowledge is sometimes referred to as tacit knowledge, it is “just the way things are”.
On the other hand, if you perform an experiment to see if the earth orbits the sun or if the sun orbits the earth, then it is likely that you will mentally think through your conclusion, “I have proven that the earth orbits the sun, and the sun does not orbit the earth”. This is because the earth’s orbit is not something that you experience directly, so knowledge of the earth’s orbit has to be expressed verbally within your mind, for you to be able to think about it. This type of knowledge is sometimes referred to as explicit knowledge. It is information that you know and are aware of, but it is not part of your life.
Most knowledge falls on a spectrum between these two extremes. To learn the piano, we need to learn some music theory, but practice extensively to get the feel of the instrument. On the other hand, studying science is mostly based on textual information, however doing practical experiments gives us a feeling for the underlying concepts.
Within business and Knowledge Management, two types of knowledge are usually defined, namely explicit and tacit knowledge. The former refers to codified knowledge, such as that found in documents, while the latter refers to non codified and often personal/experience-based knowledge. in order to understand knowledge, it is important to define these theoretical opposites.
Explicit Knowledge: This type of knowledge is formalized and codified, and is sometimes referred to as know-what. It is therefore fairly easy to identify, store, and retrieve… Explicit knowledge is found in: databases, memos, notes, documents, etc.
Tacit Knowledge: This type of knowledge… is sometimes referred to as know-how and refers to intuitive, hard to define knowledge that is largely experience based. Because of this, tacit knowledge is often context dependent and personal in nature. It is hard to communicate and deeply rooted in action, commitment, and involvement… Tacit knowledge is found in: the minds of human stakeholders. It includes cultural beliefs, values, attitudes, mental models, etc. as well as skills, capabilities and expertise.
…tacit and explicit knowledge should be seen as a spectrum rather than as definitive points. Therefore in practice, all knowledge is a mixture of tacit and explicit elements rather than being one or the other.
Knowledge and reality
Since knowledge is an extension of our natural understanding of reality, all of our knowledge must be somehow linked to an actual feeling or perception which we have personally felt or experienced.
Theoretical knowledge cannot exist within our minds, unless it is somehow linked to a real life experience which is meaningful to us. Or in other words, all explicit knowledge must be rooted in our tacit knowledge, somehow.
Explicit knowledge is [sometimes] presented as a universally comprehensible commodity, which can be stored in a knowledge archive, shared with colleagues or clicked across cyberspace… In an incisive essay entitled ‘Do we really understand tacit knowledge?’, Haridimos Tsoukas (2003) makes the crucial point that… short of a brain transplant, the capacity to know is not a transferable commodity: it is inherently personal and inherently tacit: ‘All knowledge falls into one of these two classes: it is either tacit or rooted in tacit knowledge’ (Polanyi, 1967: 195, original emphasis)… ‘The ideal of a strictly explicit knowledge is indeed self-contradictory; deprived of their tacit coefficients, all spoken words, all formulae, all maps and graphs, are strictly meaningless. An exact mathematical theory means nothing unless we recognise an inexact non-mathematical knowledge on which it bears and a person whose judgement upholds this bearing.’ (Polanyi, 1967).
A Very Short, Fairly Interesting and Reasonably Cheap Book About Studying Strategy, page 62
However, if we assume that all knowledge is rooted in our personal perceptions and feelings, it is difficult to understand how we can ever learn from anyone else.
The mentor’s knowledge is predicated on their own personal feelings and experiences. If so, how can we absorb the knowledge that they verbally transmit to us, when we do not share the feelings and experiences that their own knowledge is rooted in?
In addition to simply transmitting knowledge, every good teacher develops a personal connection with their students. The teacher will enthuse their students with their own passion for the subject, and make them feel that they are part of a journey of discovery and exploration.
One can amass textual knowledge, but without that personal connection to the teacher, without the absorption of the teacher’s way of learning… – and especially without emulating his or her way of embodying what is taught, then [the student remains] not only ignorant but [worse, when they themselves come to teach, they are like a] sorcerer!
[A teacher who can repeat the words, but never understood their own mentor’s inner meaning] just mumbles magic words, produces some dazzling temporary effects, and the student is duped. We all have had teachers like this, I suspect, and know the unfortunate students… who imitate this magical mumbling.
Make Yourself a Teacher, page 74
A good teacher shows their students how the knowledge that they are teaching resonates within them. When a teacher shows how their knowledge lightens up their world, the teacher allows the students to borrow their perspective on reality, in order to absorb the knowledge being taught. “If it is meaningful for the teacher, then it must be true.”
In other words, the students use the teacher’s tacit knowledge as a basis for absorbing the explicit knowledge that they are being taught. It may take the students years to develop their own inner grasp of these foundational truths, however.
The “aha” moment of inspiration, occurs when our natural intuitions and our technical knowledge, align with each other. When this happens, we become able to feel our way through the complexities that face us, and find the simple but brilliant solutions that result from the synthesis of instinct and intricacy.
However, as long as we rely on the intuitions that were lent to us by our teachers, our own intuition cannot enhance our understanding of our academic knowledge. Only once we autonomously perceive the underlying truths of our learned knowledge, can we experience the convergence of tacit and explicit knowledge, that results in a breakthrough.