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Knowing is Doing, Not Remembering

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I appreciate Tim Ferriss’s advice on reading non-fiction: only read how-to type books if you intend to implement their instructions right away. Otherwise it’s just entertainment.

His reasoning is that information is only useful if you use it, and you won’t remember to use it later if you don’t use it now. If any new neural connections are to be made, they’ll be made in the doing.

My dad taught math. His most helpful lesson was that math skill is all about practicing the operations — no different than shooting a basketball. Comprehending long division, for example, isn’t so much a matter of memorizing the method, as it’s about a physical familiarity with making the right markings with a pencil on the paper: drawing the division symbol, plugging in your numbers, getting a new number and writing it below, digit beneath digit. By the time you’re exam-ready, the know-how resides in your bones and reflexes, not in your thoughts. Knowing is doing, not remembering.

Learning to drive is the same. Initially, a driving instructor gives you some checklists and mantras to remember: signal, mirror, shoulder-check; brake going into the turn, gas going out. These are only placeholders though. They give way, once you’ve put them into practice, to a kind of embodied, wordless knowing that guides your hands, feet, and eyes together in the operation of the vehicle. If all you have is remembered instructions, you can’t drive a car except in the most lurching and unpleasant way.

Knowing vs Acquiring Ideas

The site you’re reading, Raptitude, is essentially an attempt to convey certain kinds of embodied knowing, having to do with the subtleties of being human, rather than driving a car or doing long division. I’m trying to get people to have some of the same perspective shifts I’ve had.

For example, in Thoughts Are Made to Be Thrown Out, I do have some information to convey: that thoughts are ephemeral visions (hallucinations, really) about possible outcomes, not true stories about the world. But my goal isn’t to simply pass on this idea, it’s to get you to see the ephemeral nature of your own thoughts, by noticing how they evaporate when you apply your attention to glancing at objects in the room. You can believe thoughts are wispy, ignorable hallucinations all you want, but it does little good until you begin to experience them as that. The exercise in the above post, if you try it, might give you that glimpse, which in turn might loosen up your usual experience of rumination and worry.

A thought

Sometimes when a reader really likes a post on this blog, they say they intend to print it out, post it somewhere obvious, and read it every day. I understand the motivation — you come across an idea that resonates, one that promises some improvement to life, and you want to make it permanent. You want to add the idea to your repertoire somehow.

I’ve printed out many resonant quotes and ideas for the same reason . . . but it’s not clear what to do after that. I tape them to my office wall or put them in a folder somewhere, the tacit assumption being that, now that I possess this idea, I will naturally bring it to bear at the right moment, somehow.

But I think Tim Ferriss is right. If you don’t implement the idea, it just passes on through. It never makes it into your behavior, so it never changes you.

Cannot do what you ask of it

Doing Raptitude

In January I did something I’ve always wanted to do — I got hundreds of people to go out into the world and actually do some of the weird perspective-giving practices I advocate on this blog. I’m talking about little two-minute exercises, designed to shake up your habitual ways of seeing ordinary life.

I called this experiment the Raptitude Field Trip. It was an opportunity for readers take these practices “into the field,” with clear instructions, and then report back to the group.

It was a thrill to hear how this went for people. The first one was called the “Secret Ally” practice: when you notice yourself mildly annoyed by a stranger, instead of indulging in the usual indignation, you privately resolve to help the offending person if they should need it. Unbeknownst to the stranger, you’ve gone from silently resenting them to silently watching out for them, and this reversal changes everything on your end.

Doing field work

I credit this practice for greatly reducing the casual ill will I sometimes harbor for strangers, when I feel put upon by a long-winded coffee order or an obtusely-parked shopping cart. Secret Ally has permanently eased my experience of crowds and public spaces. But I had no idea what others would make of it until I ran the Field Trip.

People did the practice and shared their insights:

  • One person found themselves annoyed at “loud, sweary teenagers” sitting nearby in a cafe. Only after trying the exercise did they realize the teenagers were studying for a math test, and their rowdiness was celebratory enthusiasm for solving another practice question.
  • Someone else discovered that whenever she made a call to a company’s help line, she was already assuming that whoever answers will be unhelpful. (In fact a lot of people discovered how standoffish they tended to be over the phone.)
  • Another woman applied the exercise to driving, by imagining that the car in front of her was being driven by one of her parents. “Suddenly they could do nothing to annoy me, and I was willing for them to take the time they needed to get where they were going.”

There were lots of stories like this, for each of the seven practices. Many participants said their favorite part was reading other people’s anecdotes.

Anyway, the whole thing went over better than I expected. People did successfully add these practices to their repertoire.

So I’m going to run the Field Trip again in May for those interested.

Possibly doing math

How it works

We’ll do seven practices over the course of three weeks. They can be done on your own time, but the standard pace is to try out a new practice every three days, experimenting as you wish in between.

The point of the practices is to diverge from your usual patterns in certain situations. They’re meant to help you view the situation from an angle you didn’t know existed. With only your default point of view, the mind will only make all of its usual conclusions and bring you to the usual outcomes.

As far as I know, all cultures do practices like this — rites designed to take a person outside their habitual modes of being — except maybe our modern, post-industrial culture. Such practices can be of the dramatic sort (ice water plunges, peyote ceremonies, desert walkabouts) or more subtle (storytelling, compassion practices, Stoic thought exercises).

Usual mode of being

The Field Trip practices are definitely of the more subtle sort. Each one is based on a classic Raptitude post:

Each lesson gives step-by-step instructions, but the practices are simple enough that you’ll know them by heart after the first time.

Once you get a chance to try out a practice, you can share your experiences with it in the discussion forum, if you’re so inclined.

It returns

A few things to know about the Field Trip before signing up:

This is an easy, low-cost experiment.

The Field Trip is a simple mini-course. The lessons take about 15 minutes to read, and the practices take about a minute to do. It’s a personal experiment. For the cost of two medium pizzas, you could change your experience of traffic jams, meetings, weekend get-togethers, checkout lines, restaurant meals, idle Sunday afternoons, and many other corners of life. At the very least you’ll learn a few new ways to look at what’s happening around you.

It’s for people who like Raptitude and want to make some of its practices a part of their repertoire.

The Field Trip begins May 8th, 2023.

Lessons will be released over a three-week period, starting on May 8th. Once registered, you can access the course from any online device. You’ll have lifetime access, so you can do the course some other time instead of with the group.

Those who registered for the first Field Trip are welcome to do it again for free, or do it for the first time if you never got around to it. (No need to re-register — you’ll get an email explaining everything.)

Registration is open now.

[Sign up] | [More info]


Photos by Stephen Mahlke, Daniele Levis Pelousi, Mahrous Houses, Boxed Water, Eliott Reyna, Joshua Wordel, Henan Kamikoga

Steve April 27, 2023 at 11:59 am

I was part of the first field trip and was planning to pay to do it again. I’ll happily take the generous offer for the free follow up, but wanted to share how valuable it was for anyone on the fence about signing up.

David Cain April 28, 2023 at 9:12 am

In the future there will be subsequent new field trips, with different lessons on different practices. But once you register you have it for life.

Martha April 27, 2023 at 12:26 pm

I ditto what Steve said! Great course, don’t hesitate to sign up.

Ann April 27, 2023 at 12:43 pm

I started the first field trip but my husband died just as it started. I was too sad to engage in any of the activities but I did read them all. I’m very glad you are offering this again. I’ll be there with you this time.

Joe April 27, 2023 at 6:00 pm

This reminded me of a quote from Lori Gottlieb.

“Insight is the booby prize of therapy“ is my favorite maxim of the trade, meaning that you can have all the insight in the world, but if you don’t change when you’re out in the world, the insight and the therapy is worthless. Insight allows you to ask yourself, “Is this something that’s being done to me or am I doing it to myself?“. The answer gives you choices, but it’s up to you to make them.”

David Cain April 28, 2023 at 9:14 am

This is true but it seems like it’s not emphasized enough. Insight is great, but only insofar as it gets you to turn left where you normally turn right.

Rich April 27, 2023 at 7:32 pm

The field trip was productive and did get me to practice some techniques. Well worth the time and cost.

Kiyo April 28, 2023 at 3:16 am

Hello, sorry for Sorry for writing in the comments section. I sent you a message through the contact form in February asking for permission to reprint your article in our publication. Did you receive it at [email protected]?

David Cain April 28, 2023 at 9:17 am

I did not… please resend

Kiyo May 1, 2023 at 3:10 am

Now I’ve just sent it again through your contact form. If you did not receive it, would it be possible for you to send me an email to my email address? I will provide you with the details.

Di April 28, 2023 at 7:13 am

I’d like to say I found the course a really valuable experience, and would also like to take your generous offer of a second go… a refresher!
And I’d also like to say how much I enjoy the pics and comments embedded in your articles…lots of chuckles. Cheers.

Ginzo April 28, 2023 at 9:11 am

Wow! Great post. There’s enough in there for 10 field trips.
Gurdjieff had said, ‘The greatest thing for man is to be able to “do”. Most men are just machines with reactions’. And yes, thoughts are only somewhat ‘real’ to ourselves. In the objective universe, they don’t exist at all. I keep a whiteboard with quotes to remind of what’s important. One of my favorites, ‘No one can pee for you’. Keep up the good work.

David Cain April 28, 2023 at 9:19 am

“No one can pee for you” really speaks to me. Thank you

Linda May 4, 2023 at 9:46 am

You write so amazingly. One of the most astute, aware people I have read that is traveling your path. You should be writing books.

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