Learning without thought is labor lost; thought without learning is perilous. – Confucius
What does that mean?
This quote is about the synergy between knowledge and ideas of how to do things. Learning brings knowledge. Thought brings ideas of how to do things.
Knowledge of how to do something without actually giving any consideration to how to accomplish this is an investment of time in pure knowledge. In the quote’s time period, few could afford to waste their time.
Entertaining ideas of how to do something without any idea how to actually do it is a recipe for disaster, especially if one acts on those uneducated impulses. Read a book on mountaineering? Nah, let’s just climb it!
But together, and in balance, learning and thought give us a great way by which we can get things done. And that allows us to get it done with little wasted time or danger to self or others.
Why are both learning and thought important?
As discussed in the prior section, one without the other isn’t all that useful. Yes, you can collect trivia (learning without thought), and you can live in a world of ‘what if’ (thought without learning), but what does that bring you? Not much, at least not in my view of the world.
Together, however, they are powerful allies, the strengths of one covering for the weakness in the other. And together they can help you do great things. It would be nice if we could discuss with a baby how walking works and how to use their body and legs to accomplish the task. But we can’t, so they learn the slow and hard way.
Fortunately, as adults (or at least old enough to be able to access and read this blog) we can find resources for learning, and then compare this knowledge with other things we know to try to fill in the gaps and more fully grasp what our knowledge resource provided. With a little learning and a little clear thought, we can try anything.
The more complete the knowledge and the more thorough the thought, the better our chances of accomplishing our task without wasting time or engaging in perilous behaviors. And if we can find a helper or a mentor, our chances are even better, if we are willing to listen, learn and think about what they tell us.
Where can I apply this in my life?
As a kid (and even now) I was always curious about how things worked. I took apart a few alarm clocks and old watches before realizing the wisdom of this quote. Having a pile of ‘extra’ parts left over at the end of reassembly is not a good thing. Especially if your dad needs the alarm to go off in the morning.
When it came time to rebuild my first carburetor (yes, I am that old), rather than just tear it apart and hope it went back together, I purchased a book and got a friend who had successfully rebuilt one to assist. And things went much better than when I had last played with alarm clocks. It went back together and it worked.
Take a moment and consider some of the things that didn’t go well in your life. Whether it was climbing a tree, or falling out of one, would a little more knowledge or thought have been useful in the endeavor? Knowing how to get back down helps too. Knowing how thick a branch has to be would help.
On the other hand, I’m sure you learned a lot from those experiences. Personal experience, while often painful, is always a very memorable way to learn a lesson. But was it worth the pain, or if given another chance, would you rather learn and think, rather than simply try and earn experience?
Hopefully your life experiences have shown you that learning and thought are a good combination, and that one without the other is usually at least somewhat less helpful. The question now is how to remember this bit of information going forward. Besides buying or making a poster or T-Shirt, that is.
Two questions I try to remember to ask myself before starting anything is “Do I know what to do?” (learning) and “Do I know how to do it?” (thought). If you could find something to remind yourself to learn and think before trying a new task, that might help. What other ways could you help yourself remember?
While many of us have “free time,” time which can be used to pursue knowledge simply for its own sake (you are on the Internet, aren’t you?), giving some thought to how you might use it is still a useful exercise. Unless your reading is in atomic weaponry or theoretical physics, that is. And giving some thought to what we are about to attempt is another very useful thing.
What will you do the next time you get some knowledge? Will you remember to think about the application thereof? What about the next time you think about trying something new? Will you remember to do a bit of research and learn more about it? It’s your time and your life. Enjoy it, but try not to be wasteful of time, nor perilous in action, for yourself or for others.