What is experiential knowledge?

We acquire knowledge via the following means.

  • By studying and learning
  • By experience

As we go through school and college degrees we study a lot of basic subjects like Math, Physics and languages. Later as we progress through our degrees we begin to specialize.

Once we end up in a job, assuming it is commensurate with what we studied, we can apply the knowledge we gathered to do that job. I have seen fresh engineers raring to go at their very first piece of code which may end up being used by a real customer.

The question is what about the knowledge gained by experience? What is the real difference between the two?

Suppose you learn to swim in a pool. Let us say, you take a year or two to become an expert in free style swimming. Now that you can swim very well, if you have to swim in a lake or a river or the sea, will you be able to do it like the way you go about in the pool?

It is not possible. Knowing to swim, the skill, is different from being able to do that in a different context like Sea. The sheer volume of water being thrown at you with continuous waves crashing on you, the ocean floor receding rapidly within a short distance, the forces pulling in various directions make it into a different problem to solve. If you go to a river, the force of the water, the algae covered rocks, your feet sinking into the sand and the swirls all make it a different experience altogether. It is a different context altogether.

Though one may be equipped with the right skills, being able to apply those skills to a new context demands your ability to have seen a large variety of such contexts.

An experienced person is one who has gone through a variety of problems in a particular domain. He can manoeuvre new contexts better than a beginner. His understanding of the problem in hand and the context is much greater than a freshman.

A freshman may be a star student. He may have sharp skills. But when it comes to applying it to a context, the experienced man who may not be so sharply skilled can get through with ease and efficiency using the right amount of skills required to solve the problem.

In a way, that is why organizations need a mix of fresh and experienced people. Fresh people with their raw energy and skills need to be guided by the experienced folks who can understand the context and draw in the right skills needed to dispose the problem in hand.

Typically the years spent by someone in a domain is used to measure one’s experience. Though this is a good indicator, often true experience comes from solving a variety of problems or going through a variety of situations in a particular area. So a proof of variety is a good indicator of one’s experience and can tell how geared someone is in solving a new problem in that area.

When we look at the old people around us, it will be obvious to note that their faculties are not at their best. Their ability to ‘do’ stuff will be laughable. But their experience in living this life is unmatched. They would have come into their eighties and nineties after seeing a variety of life situations. A old person who is healthy and cheerful is someone who is experienced in living this life, which by itself is a very hard skill to gain and can come by experience only.

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Thalapathy Krishnamurthy

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