Let Go of What You Think You Know

Woman touching tablet and words "Never stop learning"Doing so mentally prepares you to learn more.

By Bill Reeb

“Let go of what you think you know” is something my mentor John’s martial arts students say and read every time we enter the school to train; it is a fundamental idea to embrace if you want to expand your ability to learn and grow. This phrase is a reminder to ensure that your existing knowledge and skill do not negatively impact your willingness to gain new knowledge and skill!

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It’s funny how we think, sometimes. For example, it is not uncommon that we position ourselves on either end of a spectrum (I know something or I don’t; I have a skill or I don’t). When people think they already know something, it is hard to even get their attention to consider new ideas unless they believe someone else knows more than they do.

The same is true for a skill. When people are highly skilled, in many situations, until you can prove that you can perform at a higher level than they can, they will often close their minds to any new information you are sharing. It’s like you don’t have the right to give constructive feedback or provide a different perspective unless you are better skilled or more knowledgeable than the person you are speaking to.

In John’s school, as part of the school oath, students used to say, “Respect your seniors.” This actually fell in line with the common notion that we should show respect to the people who have risen to a level of competency above ours. However, about 10 years ago, that phrase was changed simply to “Respect Others.”

As part of our learning pedagogy and as a black belt, I am commonly critiqued by lower belts, including white belts who might only have a few weeks of experience. At first, this shift in thinking was humbling. Why, after 20 years of training, would I respectfully receive corrections or suggested improvements from someone with only months of experience?

The answer is – someone doesn’t have to be more capable than you to help you get better! I can tell you from years of practice, though that inexperienced white belt may not have the background to perform the complex movement I might be demonstrating, he or she can almost always provide insight as to some gross movement they saw that looked inconsistent, unfocused or unbalanced. Their almost naive perspective often contains some incredibly valuable insight.

Just thinking about this reminds me of an old story, maybe even an urban myth, that General Electric would ask each of its newly hired engineers to solve the problem of smoothing the bright spot out of the light bulb. The existing engineers, knowing that this problem could not be solved, thought this was an excellent hazing exercise and a humbling experience to remind these new recruits just how little they actually knew. However, as you know today, there is no singular bright spot in a light bulb. Someone solved the problem, proving to the experienced engineers that people taking a fresh look at a problem, even with limited experience, have a wonderful perspective to share.

Whether or not this example is actually true is irrelevant. I can tell you that in a business setting, I will often charge people in new roles, or people who are new in their jobs, to look at processes or approaches and share their improvement opinions. Because these people were not party to creating the existing processes or approaches, they have no vested interest (and therefore no filter) in trying to find a way to support the current solutions. Because they are looking at the situation without a lot of preconceived notions as to what has, should or will work, these people are predisposed to letting go of what they think  they know and taking a fresh objective look with open eyes and an open mind.

The lesson here is ... as soon as you think you know something, you might subconsciously be putting up barriers to your learning.

Therefore, if you want to get better, faster and stronger, a first step I am suggesting is to let go of what you think you know.

A different view of this same idea is to realize that you are limited in what you can know because of your current level of knowledge and experience. For instance, I used to think that when I became a black belt, I would know almost everything about a particular martial art and that all of my focus could then shift toward fine-tuning those various techniques. What I can tell you now, with certainty, is that I saw a far brighter knowledge and skill light at the end of the tunnel in my first few years of training than I can see right now, more than 20 years later. I have only scratched the surface of what there is to learn and my skills are almost infantile in the evolution of what they could be. In other words, with each opportunity to learn or grow we position ourselves to be able to see the more that is there. To me, it is almost the height of arrogance to state that we know anything without adding this annotation:

“Anytime I state that I know something, the statement is made based on my current level of skill, knowledge, experience, biases, personal baggage, attitudes and prejudices. As my knowledge  and experience are enhanced, I could easily find out that what I thought I knew, I didn’t even know at all because at that time I was not far enough along in my development to fully  comprehend the limitations of my awareness or perceptions.”

Several months ago, we were going over one of the Korean forms, which I learned seven or eight years ago, from the tae kwon do discipline. I have observed, commented on and taught this form for years to other students in the interim. However, that day, John broke down the form in a different way to reteach a group of instructors. John maintained that this update was to simply focus on a few spots in the form that needed additional insight.

As someone relearning the form that day, I would say that there were but a few movements that remained unchanged. So, here was a form that I thought I already knew and had taught to others now being retaught to me. However, this time around I was provided a more detailed perspective of the techniques, their intent and what the opponent might be doing to counter each movement. So, realizing that you are limited in what you can know because of your current level of knowledge and experience predisposes you to let go of what you think you know.

These were hard philosophies for me to embrace because as an overachiever I have always been proud of what I have been able to accomplish as well as the depth and breadth of my experience.

In a way, these philosophies diminish all of that. However, adopting them has allowed me to more easily let down my guard and defensiveness so that I am positioned to see things from an entirely new perspective. So, don’t settle into a viewpoint that encourages you to think you have finally acquired all the requisite knowledge or skill that you need regarding any aspect of your life. That kind of finality is created for comfort and vanity. Instead, realize that knowledge, skills, values, beliefs and experiences are simply part of your constantly evolving awareness. Keep learning ... Keep growing ... Keep doing the work!

Each day, I need to be ready to let go of what I think I know so that I am better mentally prepared to learn more. The concepts I discuss do not represent some kind of final truth, simply my perspective right now, which I hope continually evolves. But just because what I understand today will continue to change, that doesn’t mean that what I have to share isn’t valuable. Based on the results of John’s and my helping thousands of people positively reshape their lives, I am asking you to let go of what you think you know long enough to take in new ideas, techniques and concepts because they absolutely can help you find greater happiness, peace of mind, success or the “more” you are looking for in your life. If you are not sincerely willing to let go of what you think you know, I believe that rather than experiencing any profound changes in the way you think or in what you do, you will simply be adding more information and perpetuating the same obstacles and situations you are experiencing now.

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