Cognitive and Physical Knowledge

There’s a difference between cognitive knowledge (facts, ideas, etc., in your brain) and physical knowledge (being able to perform certain actions to achieve a result). And both are important.

To know something cognitively is to study it in-depth: to read books from experts, consult with people who have experience and understand the component parts of a process. To gain command of subject, intellectually.

Physical knowledge (generally) proceeds from cognitive knowledge. When we want to do something new we learn a bit about how to do it, usually by asking someone who knows how to do it already and then giving it a try. Generally our first attempts are awkward and halting, sometimes we “fail,” but whatever we stick with we develop physical knowledge (of).

My point here is that to know something cognitively is necessary, but incomplete (often woefully so). And to know something just physically often means that you’re operating at a lower level. It’s when we bring excellence to both aspects of knowledge that we really know something.

I thought of an example that might illustrate my point. Imagine you study all there is know about about how a curve ball works in baseball. You study game film, talk to pitching coaches, interview great curve-ball pitchers and study the academic literature on pitching and curve balls (trust me, I’m sure there’s plenty). Eventually, you’ll be an “expert” on the curve ball. But if you tried to throw one, I can virtually guarantee that it won’t curve and, if you try to throw it at anything approaching Major League speed, you would hurt your arm somehow.

The physical knowledge required to throw a Major League curve ball begins in Little League, or perhaps earlier. It takes years of practice and playing, experimentation and learning and a lot of throwing balls that don’t actually curve, and only hang — and often get hit very hard by the batter.

To be sure, there’s cognitive knowledge in being able to throw the curve ball. It takes someone to carefully explain how to hold, and how to throw, the ball — both what to do with the arm and the wrist. And the budding curve ball pitcher, if dedicated to developing a curve-ball-that-drops-like-a-stone, spends time reading books on pitching and curve balls, watching instructional DVDs and watching the best curve ball pitchers on TV whenever possible looking for any clues to their greatness.

It’s when cognitive and physical knowledge is combined that true mastery is possible. Pitchers like Sandy Koufax, Bert Blyleven and Barry Zito (in his prime) would throw a ball towards home plate that would appear to be inside (or outside) and high only to drop just before crossing the plate, with most batters swinging at pitch that simply wasn’t “there.”

Are there areas where you have just cognitive or physical knowledge? Especially just cognitive? Know that you have to take (physical) action to acquire physical knowledge. Doing so honors your cognitive knowledge. Without implementation and the ability to achieve real results, cognitive knowledge is as fallow as an un-tilled/planted field. Conversely, there are often things to learn about what you (physically) know how to do that will enhance your results, and possibly improve your experience. Look for both.

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