What Matters: Information vs. Knowledge vs. Experience

June 11, 2014

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There’s no question that self-education has never been easier.

We can consume countless blog posts, articles, books, videos, TED talks, and Reddit AMAs. We take MOOCs, and can study along with course syllabuses from Ivy League universities. It’s awesome. And best of all, no one can criticize effort spent on becoming informed.

But there is a dark side to this glut of free information. It’s enabled a whole industry of self-help gurus, life coaches, and social media marketers to sell snake oil to the masses, tricking people–people who genuinely want to improve their lives–into thinking they can get something for nothing.

I would never discourage someone from learning, especially extra-curricular learning. I’ll just say that it’s only an education (in the schooling vs. education sense of the word) if that learning is turned into knowledge.

And knowledge requires more than just books and instruction. It requires experience. It needs the interplay–the back and forth feedback loop–between theory and practice, hypothesis and results, ideas and action. Reading case studies and listening to the latest social media gurus isn’t going to get you very far unless you have something practice the lessons on. Education without experience is masturbation. As the saying goes, non scholae, sed vitae discimus—not for school but for life we learn.

So how do you do it? How do you turn you turn lessons into action? Information into insight?

First, you have to just start. As Austin Kleon put it “Don’t wait until you know who you are to get started.” That’s the whole point—you figure it out by doing. So none of this nonsense about “being ready.”

This is both the simplest and hardest way to separate yourself from your peers. Why? Because while everyone else is studying, you’re working. What makes it hard is that we’ve been told our whole lives is that you need a degree, you need prerequisites, you need to be properly trained. Drop out, get started.

Of course, your education is never over. Doing and learning feed into each other and the sooner you start, the better. As Plutarch puts it, “I did not so much gain the knowledge of things by the words, as words by the experience of things.”

So don’t hold out for your dream job or the perfect opportunity. The perfect opportunity is the one that exists, that gives you any kind of experience, the one that allows you to put anything you’ve learned into practice. The perfect opportunity you keep picturing in your head? That’s your ego protecting you from change — the feeling of pain and failure that is deliberate practice and experimentation.

Don’t wait to be paid for it either. The opportunity is the payment. You want a good job for purely selfish reasons here—you want a place where you can experiment with your ideas and theories. Think about it like being a grad student, you want access to the laboratory where you can run experiments (that they pay you a little bit is a bonus). For some more thoughts on this, check out my piece on mentorshipsCharlie Hoehn’s Recession Proof Graduate, or Robert Greene’s chapters on apprenticeships in Mastery.

Second, process. It’s very easy for learning to go in one ear and out the other. Making a concerted effort to record and process what you’re observing and being taught helps prevent that.

If you read a lot, take notes on what you read and transfer those notes into a commonplace book, where you can organize your thoughts. Repeating and reiterating what you’ve learned helps make connections and improve memory. Organizing it into a system means it will be so much easier to retrieve when you need it. There’s a reason that smart people often carry around a notebook.

Writing articles is my favorite. I am always looking for ways to take interesting things I’ve seen, heard or read and see how I can write about themUsing a quote you like forces you not only to recall it better, but means you have to add analysis and interpretation to it. If I experience someone provocative, I try to write about that too. I can still remember snippets and pieces advices I was given (and studies, anecdotes and examples) that I mentioned in blog posts five or six years ago.

It doesn’t have to be writing though. You can process by talking, teaching, or a lot of other means. Struggling to explain what you’re working on feels painful, but it helps. By the end of it, you understand it better. Trust me, it also helps with your sanity.

The point is you have to articulate and analyze what you are seeing. It’s the only way to take the sparks of thought in your brain and turn them into a coherent understanding that you can use for other things, whatever it may be (explaining it to others, writing an article about it, solving a personal problem, etc). Don’t worry about form over function here. It doesn’t matter if no one reads your blog posts, if your girlfriend/boyfriend only half understands your breathless explanations. Just do it.

Third, expose, then apply. Analogous thinking (where thinking from one domain is applied to another) is incredibly powerful—it’s where real creative breakthroughs happen. But you know, there are two critical ingredients there. An interest in something, and the initiative to try to translate it.

I remember exactly how I got into marketing. Before I worked for Tucker, before American Apparel, I had a job working at a restaurant between high school and college. I had developed a relationship with the owner, who could see I was more than just a kid. And I had been avidly reading these local political blogs and noticed that the bloggers would talk about stuff other than politics. I suggested that the guy offer a few of them free meals if they would come in and review the place. The bloggers gave him a bunch of free press. I think he paid me $250 for this idea. Even in my wildest expectations, I never would have guessed I would I later write a book about these exact kinds of transactions.

I was working as a server but I had learned and studied something on the side. I combined the two. My career followed. Connections between ideas don’t magically happen. Knowledge doesn’t become action on it’s own. You have to do it. But my idea was only possible because of step one and two—I’d taken some crappy job rather than sitting at home and I’d been fooling around learning and writing. Then I connected the two.

Read and learn widely, but apply those lessons to whatever you happen to be doing. Make connections–however absurd they may seem. You never know where it will lead.

“Many who have learned from Hesiod
the countless names of gods and monsters
never understand that night and day are one” – Heraclitus

The bottom line is that you can read the best books, have the best teachers and go to the best schools in the world, but compared to people who do things for a living, you’ll still be a fool. I love reading more than almost anything, probably more than I should. But even I’ll admit that it would be a waste of time if I just let it all accumulate in my head. More than that, I wouldn’t truly know what I’d read because I’d never put myself out there, applied it or made connections.

You can’t put your stamp on the world being a passive student. The proving grounds are in the real world. This means taking risks, it means exposing yourself to new things and putting your own spin on them.

So get going.

This column originally appeared on Thought Catalog. Comments can bee seen there.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

14 responses to What Matters: Information vs. Knowledge vs. Experience

  1. Ryan,

    An absolutely great article. Many of us get stuck in “theory” mode and never move into “experiment” mode. I learn so much more when I read something and then incorporate it into my life. One of the books that I have been handing out to my team is “Essentialism” by Greg McKeown. It has changed how my team operates – focusing on the essential things – both personally and professionally.

    Life is all about experimenting.

  2. So much truth in here.

    I’m reminded of a quote I read in an article by Tim Ferris — “The more you create, the more you deserve to consume.”

    Having so much information available at our fingertips makes it easy to fall into the habit of over consuming and under creating. Reading is great, but you don’t really learn anything until you apply what you’ve learned and experience it for yourself.

  3. Hi Ryan,

    I accidently know you from Amazon book recommendatio. I just listened Tim Ferris podcast and I visited your site to look around. I read this article and it blew my mind. Thanks for this insightful words.
    Keep it on pls!

    Jun from Korea

  4. Richard Mahony June 12, 2014 at 6:05 am

    ‘As the saying goes, non scholae, sed vitae discimus—not for school but for life we learn.’

    All well and good except that the original sentiment expressed by Seneca in his letter CVI to Lucilius, ‘On the corporeality of virtue’ was exactly the opposite:

    ’11. Now that I have humoured your wishes, I shall anticipate your remark, when you say: “What a game of pawns!” We dull our fine edge by such superfluous pursuits; these things make men clever, but not good.

    12. Wisdom is a plainer thing than that; nay, it is clearly better to use literature for the improvement of the mind, instead of wasting philosophy itself as we waste other efforts on superfluous things. Just as we suffer from excess in all things, so we suffer from excess in literature; thus we learn our lessons, not for life, but for the lecture-room. Farewell.’

    In reaction to Seneca’s cynicism about the pointlessness of so much schoolroom instruction, indignant schoolmasters turned Seneca’s saying on its head, claiming that, contrary to what Seneca humorously suggested, *their* charges were learning for life – and not for merely for the classroom.

    In practise, those of us who think then act know that what others teach us is no substitute for our own experience. A skilled instructor, however, may help some of us some of the time, even though we then must go and immediately practise (while the instruction is still fresh in our mind) what we have learned if it is to be of any benefit.

    Most of what most folks read (and think they have learned) is a waste of their time and effort because they read rubbish. Why do they read rubbish? Partly because they don’t know any better, but also because they lack the intellect and understanding to do better.

    For example, if one hasn’t mastered the foundations of differential and integral calculus, then one is not going to be able to read and understand the writings of James Clerk Maxwell. Further, if one can’t read and understand Maxwell then one won’t be able to read and understand Einstein’s advanced writings on gravitation. And if one can’t understand the latter, then one is never going to understand the foundations of modern physics.

    Moreover, if we can’t understand the foundations of modern physics, and apply that understanding to explaining the natural phenomena of the universe, then we are dunces, no matter how good our classical education is.

    CP Snow described the humanists’ widespread ignorance of science in ‘The Two Cultures’ in his 1959 Rede Lecture, and thereby caused much indignation amongst the great and the good at the time. Today, little has changed. It is so much harder to get to grips with advanced mathematics than it is to engage with most other intellectual disciplines that even those who think of themselves as well read are completely out of their depth when it comes to a proper understanding of physics.

    Does this matter? Yes, I submit that it does. The result of this widespread ignorance is that we live in a world ruled by ignoramuses because the ignorant, who make up almost all mankind, vote for those whose own ignorance makes the masses feel comfortable about their ignorance. Hence, we live in a world in which the blind lead the blind, and in which the con artists easily con the greedy and the gullible.

  5. You’re spot on Ryan. I have experienced how reading/college doesn’t quite matter or make sense until you live it (and revisit what you’ve read after experience). Being in front of a bunch of students every day quickly made real meaning out of what I read for school of ed, and elsewhere. I have been lucky to be surrounded by people who are even more valuable than any book I could read too. I appreciate how well you have articulated something I feel like I’ve only begun to discover over the last few years through my profession. Thank you. Keep writing.

  6. Wow.
    Really, Ryan, you struck a chord with this one.
    Sometimes it is just so appealing to keep learning, getting to know new things and being interested in just about anything. The dividing factor lies in the action-taking, the process of putting this gathered knowledge to use.
    Already ordered Obstacle is the Way to get more of such writing. And putting it to use 😉


  7. Great article, Ryan!
    I first read it on Thought Catalog and loved it! This theory about information verse experience is the basis of spirituality. I read this article a few months ago and it still hunts my mind. Marketing is definately in your karma 🙂

  8. Ryan – your story about being a restaurant server turned marketer reminded me of a prolific quote from Steve Jobs when he gave the Stanford commencement speech in 2005:

    “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well worn path; and that will make all the difference.”


  9. Marcelo Nicolau July 28, 2014 at 11:06 pm

    Great article. Funny how it took me a while to stop and read it, but I somehow sensed this would connect exactly to where I am right now.
    Not long ago I struggled with the decision to either take a full time master degree or a part-time format that would allow me to also work and put learning into practice. Interesting to notice how most people will advise you to concentrate on your studies with the argument that focus will take you a lot further than dividing your attention on both things. I didn’t exactly agree, took the other path and it’s definitely paying off. Knowledge is a volatile thing that you need to tame through an everyday practice.
    Thanks for such an interesting text !

  10. Information Vs Skill is what this should have been titled as.

    You GET information but you DEVELOP skill.
    You get information by simply reading. You can choose to sit there and think “Wow, cool..”
    You develop skill by doing, effing up, fixing it,etc.

    I saw this first-hand, I was reading, learning and emailing a lot.
    But NOTHING changed.(that threw me into mild teen angst)
    I started doing things – developing skills.
    Today, I’ve got a great internship that’s giving me opportunities than I can handle and I’m only 17 years old.

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