knowledge vs skill

May 2nd, 2007

There are basically two approaches to learning anything you'd like to learn. Well, maybe not anything at all, but it certainly applies to a lot of things. You can shoot for skill or you can shoot for knowledge. They aren't the same and generally you have a good reason for wanting one or the other.

Knowledge is the academic, theoretical part of the picture. It is knowing what, and why. Knowledge is about knowing your field well in a structured way. It's about knowing the concepts, the terminology. It's about being able to use concepts from one field to another, to spot patterns between things. It's being able to discuss your field with a peer, or read technical papers about it. You could say it's a way of organizing what you know in a way that makes it possible to keep track of it and talk about it.

Skill is the application oriented, practical avenue. Where knowledge is about knowing, skill is about feeling. It's about knowing how. Skill is all about being useful, it's only about being able to do things. Skill isn't about knowing why things are as they are or what exactly they are. Skill doesn't demand you be able to explain how to do something, just that you can do it yourself. And you don't have to know how it is you know how to do it either, you can be born with a talent for something and find it so intuitive that you're skillful without really learning what it is.

To take an example, consider driving a car. Knowledge is knowing the structure of the car, the physical processes that take place, knowing what all the instruments do. But even if you don't know any of those things, skill is about knowing how to drive. Not knowing that the left pedal is called the clutch does not preclude you from driving, it's a piece of knowledge, it's not a piece of skill. But being able to press in that pedal, at the right speed, and release it just when it needs to be released, that is skill.

Or if you take mathematics, knowledge is knowing what differential equations are, how they work, why they are useful, and where they can be applied. And if you see one, you know what ways there are of solving one, what formulas and strategies exist, and where to find them. Skill is being able to solve them, even if you know nothing else.


In a sense, knowledge is the absence of skill and skill is the absence of knowledge. They are complementary. You might say there is most to gain from adding skill to knowledge or knowledge to skill (think MacGyver). If you're good at doing something, and you add knowledge, you will learn how to talk about what you know, how to describe the subtleties of your skill, and even (if you so wish) how to teach someone else how to do it as well as you do. On the other hand, if you have knowledge and you add skill, then not only will you be able to discuss what you know in a precise and accurate way, and read about it to add to your knowledge, you'll be able to apply that knowledge to do something concrete.

I think that most people are biased towards one of these. That means in most cases they will prefer one over the other. And it makes sense, because it's hard to cover both. I certainly find a great deal more satisfaction in skill, and I think that's probably subjective. It may be because skill is more tangible, it's more about having a feel for something rather than knowing a lot about it. It's also that skill is a way to eliminate thinking. If you know how to do it, you don't have to think about it, you can do it quicker.

But above all skill is about perfecting your ability. The more skilled you are, the more expert you are in the thing you do. And skill tends to study that thing in greater detail than knowledge does. Not through academic discussion, but through trying and failing so many times that you know how to do it better than any theorist could work out for you. Skill is expert knowledge that cannot be communicated, because it's too complicated to do so. Theoretical knowledge can be communicated.

Thus, in knowledge, everything can be taught, in skill not everything can. If you're learning a skill from a teacher, you will never get the exact solution, you will only get guidelines. The rest.. you have to figure out yourself. For instance, say you're learning to ski. The instructor will tell you how to move your body, how to shift your weight from one side to the other, how to approach a turn, how to brake etc. But however much he may want to, he will not tell you exactly at what angle to lean into a turn, and what amount of tension to apply in a muscle at a particular instant, how many milliseconds after one turn to take the next etc. And even if he were able to tell you exactly how he does it, it would not help you anyway, because everything you have to do depends on the precise circumstances in that instant, circumstances that are not known in advance.

In theory, it is possible to work out all these details. But even if you had this knowledge, it would be so incredibly complicated that you wouldn't be able to use it. Only a computer could calculate all those values in time to do what you have to do.


So skill is self taught. Perhaps you were given guidelines and tutoring on how to learn a certain skill, but no one can tell you exactly what to do, this you have to determine yourself. So, as a logical conclusion, the way you do something is not the way that someone else does it. Because you both learned that particular skill through different paths. And by that you could argue that the way you do it is unique, no one else does it exactly that same way.

Perhaps that uniqueness is why I find skill more satisfying. Isn't that also what you're thinking when you're skilled at something? "No one can do this exactly the way I do." Not consciously thinking it, but I wonder if that isn't the conviction we all have.

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4 Responses to "knowledge vs skill"

  1. erik says:

    Spot on, I think. My abilities in foreign languages is all to do with skill. I don't learn this through knowledge, don't bother with the grammar etc. I find I don't need all that which brings me to talent as a necessary requisite for anyone to be able of mastering something through skill (doing) rather than through knowledge (being taught).

  2. numerodix says:

    To develop this idea a little further.. If we accept the premise that skill is learning through trial and error, then talent is the natural inclination to doing something the right way rather than the wrong way. And the lack of talent is demonstrated by doing it the wrong way repeatedly time after time, only slowly getting better at it.

  3. erik says:

    You should send a more detailed article to some psyche magazine :D

  4. Chris says:

    We were having this debate my friends and I and I agree with you. The reason for this is that throughout the debate, I came across this question which helped me lean even more towards skills. The question was before any knowledge even existed for example, math. Doesn't it require a skillful person to come up with that specific knowledge. For example, Newton's laws, he came up with them with his own skills, wouldn't you agree? Just wondering if you would give any insight on my argument.

    Thank you
    Great Article