By Jim Selman | Bio
One of the aphorisms we were given at the end of the est training in the 1970s was the statement, “Understanding is the booby prize.” It has taken me most of my life to really appreciate and mostly live day-to-day with this trueism. In our culture, understanding is assumed to be more or less synonymous with ‘knowledge’. It’s the point to most communication and a prerequisite for most commitment.
If I have acquired any wisdom over the past six decades, it is this: the purpose of learning is action and understanding is a by-product of accomplishment (not a prerequisite). When I speak to groups of people, it usually takes me a few hours for them to ‘get’ that I am not communicating so they understand me, but communicating in a way that I hope will provide them with some new possibility or opening for action. As a coach, I am very clear that action always follows commitment and the passion to know ‘why’ or ‘how’ are traps that, more often than not, keep us locked into old patterns and unable to do the kinds of ‘unreasonable’ actions that lead to unprecedented results and breakthroughs.
I think that, for many, aging is a process of growing increasingly ‘reasonable’ and becoming inflexible in a context of all that we ‘know’ and understand about life, the way things work, and what we need to ‘do’ to get results. The often-parroted phrase of “getting out of the box” becomes more and more difficult if we are attached to what we understand and, as a consequence, have come to believe. For many, to believe without understanding is a definition of ‘faith’ that is easily marginalized as impractical or simply a matter of personal experience.
Understanding is what keeps us in the box. Understanding is the basis for drawing boundaries around what is possible and not possible. The fact is that if we could understand a possibility, it wouldn’t be a possibility. It would be an example or an option within the context of our historical experience. People who break records, great leaders and inventors—anyone who is engaged in creating their reality—are taking actions that are unreasonable, probably difficult or impossible to understand, and that are often dismissed by most people as foolish, naïve or impractical.
I am not opposed to having a goal of understanding as a product of post-action reflection and study to design recurring practices so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Progress requires we learn from the past, codify what we can and master the rest. But whether the past is a constraint or whether it is the platform for creativity depends upon our willingness to let go of our NEED for understanding and certainty and remain centered in our commitment to action.