How do you understand something? How do you organize information in a way that makes it memorable and comprehensive so you can better assimilate it?
In this episode, I’m going to pull from a new book called Understanding Understanding by Richard Saul Wurman. He is the author of 90+ books and best-known as the creator of TED. His latest book was co-written with 25 other individuals such as magician David Blaine and world-renowned architect Frank Gehry, and asks them each to tackle the question: What does it mean to understand something? I also contributed a chapter on the topic from a brain perspective, drawing on adult learning theory and memory principles.
Want more from Richard Saul Wurman? Purchase Understanding Understanding here.
How do you understand something? How do you organize information in a way that makes it memorable and comprehensive so you can better assimilate it? The goal is not just to read and remember faster – it’s to understand what you’re learning.
Let’s look at Wurman’s Ode to Ignorance:
To comprehend new information of any kind – be it financial reports, appliance manuals or a new recipe – you must go through certain processes and meet certain conditions before understanding can take place. You must have some interest in receiving the information; you must uncover the structure or framework by which it is or should be organized; you must relate the information to ideas that you already understand; and you must test the information against those ideas and examine it from different vantage points in order to possess or know it.
The most essential prerequisite to understanding is to be able to admit when you don’t understand something. Striving to be the dumbest person in the room.
Being able to admit that you don’t know is liberating. Giving yourself permission not to know everything will make you relax, which is the ideal frame of mind to receive new information. You must be comfortable to really listen, to really hear and absorb new information.
In our first episode, we talked about how one of the keys to learning anything FASTer is to Forget. This is all about the attitude you need of your beginner’s mind to help you learn faster and achieve faster.
When you can you admit to ignorance, you will realize that ignorance isn’t exactly bliss, it is, however, an ideal state from which to learn. The fewer preconceptions you have about the material, and the more relaxed you feel about not knowing, the more you will increase your ability to understand and learn. When you can admit that you don’t know, you are more likely to ask the questions that will enable you to learn. When you don’t have to filter your inquisitiveness through a smoke screen of intellectual posturing, you can genuinely receive or listen to new information. If you are always trying to disguise your ignorance of a subject, you will be distracted from understanding it.
All learning is state-dependent – and our ego sometimes gets in the way of learning.
By giving yourself permission not to know, you can overcome the fear that your ignorance will be discovered. THe inquisitiveness essential to learning thrives on transcending this fear.
Yet this essential prerequisite to learning is a radical concept in our society. As there are few rewards and abundant punishments for admitting ignorance on a personal or professional level in our culture, we go to great lengths to mask a lack of understanding. Most of us have been taught since childhood, at least implicitly, never to admit ignorance. We live in fear of our ignorance being discovered and spend our lives trying to put one over on the world. If we could instead delight in our ignorance, use it as an inspiration to learn instead of an embarrassment to conceal, there would be no information anxiety.
Organizing information helps you find, understand, and remember it better. There are only 5 ways to organize information. The method you choose will permit a different understanding of the information.