How Can We Better Understand What We Want?

We want to know more about what makes us happy, and the first reaction is to do more things — the things that bring you instant joy, or  things that bring you that the satisfaction of a job well done.

In an engineering family, the expectation is to become an engineer and build things, because that is clearly the superior route to happiness.

In an artistic family, the expectation is to find the perfect passion and explore it, because that is clearly the superior route to happiness.

Maybe the skill is coding apps. Maybe it’s being professional basketball player. Maybe it’s about achieving meditative Nirvana.

Yet with all these actions, we may still feel like we’re missing something important. The first instinct is to do even more of the same because you’ve already determined an expectation is the superior route to happiness. But there’s a smarter way to find the missing piece.

A man examines a bean on the table. He rubs it cautiously, then picks it up and presses it — then unpresses it — with the tip of his index finger and thumb.

He palms the bean, puts it between his teeth, and takes a staunch bite.

Immediately, he recognizes the effects of a lethal dose of poison. Thrown unaware, he grasps around the countertop for something, anything, to reject the poison.

He finds a bowl of cloudy water nearby, water he used to shave. He downs the bowl of water, and vomits up the contents. An emetic, it’s just what he needs to survive.

After feeling the bean’s lethality, he couldn’t be prouder.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had two primary inspirations for his titular character, Sherlock Holmes. One was his mentor and medical professor Joseph Bell, whose inductive skills allowed him to preternaturally identify things about his patients.

The most powerful example of his inductive skills was in identifying a new patient to his students. He was able to decide, with just a glance, that the man was a freshly-arrived non-commissioned officer, a soldier, who served in Bermuda.

He pointed out the patient entered the room without removing his hat, that the way he carried himself was too confident for a normal soldier, and that his forehead had a particular rash that was prominent in Bermuda. 1 He was the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes’ worldly knowledge and inductive skills.

The other primary inspiration was Robert Christison.

Christison had an excellent reputation as a leading toxicologist and physician. He was among the forefathers of forensic toxicology. Though famed for his contributions to medicine, he is best known for biting into that bean.

The Calabar bean is highly toxic, and served as a judicial system for African tribes. They crushed and served it to those accused of witchcraft and other crimes. Survival meant the accused was innocent. Death meant they were guilty.2

Christison was a leading toxicologist. He knew exactly what the Calabar bean was. He knew exactly what it was supposed to do. He knew that it was lethal. He ingested it anyways.

But he was not suicidal. Why would he deliberately injest poison?

How to Learn Unteachable Knowledge

Given the wealth of information, it would seem easy for anyone with Internet access to learn and become anything they desired. We may expect technological progress to explode. We may expect world happiness quotients rising. We may expect us to be information sponges in all realms, edging steps closer to actualizing the desires of every human being.

Unfortunately, information isn’t always that transferable. While I can easily explain how 2+2 is 4, it’s more difficult to explain what love is. That’s because they fall into 2 different realms of knowledge.

Understanding the two types of knowledge may be the single most important thing you learn. Let’s talk about the 2 types of knowledge and why they matter.

Explicit knowledge is knowledge that is readily articulated, codified, accessed, and verbalized. 3 It’s easy to store on things like books and CDs. It’s telling someone that 2 plus 2 is 4. It’s telling someone that carbs provide energy for the body, and that protein repairs cells. It’s telling people that happiness arises from a combination of neurotransmitters in the brain. It is the underlying mechanisms of all things.

Conversely, Tacit knowledge is knowledge that is difficult to transfer to another person by means of writing it down or verbalizing it.” 4 It’s knowledge that requires experience to comprehend, and is difficult to teach.

Let’s talk about swimming. Knowing how to swim is tacit knowledge. I could tell you about water pressure, buoyancy, muscular coordination, and tactile sensation. I can give you still images of a man swimming, and analyze the mechanism that allows him to part water with every coordination of his body. But none of this actually helps you swim.

Instead, I’d probably tell you to brace yourself, and shove you into a pool. Only by being immersed in the experience and consciously trying to swim, will you actually learn how to swim.

woman swimming

Knowing the mechanisms of swimming is explicit knowledge. Knowing how to swim is tacit knowledge.

Doctor Robert Christison survived his experience with the Calabar bean. He wasn’t suicidal, or facing an existential crisis. By ingesting the bean, he knew what symptoms patients with that type of poisoning would experience. He knew just how lethal it was (remember how shocked he was at the potency that he had to chug grey water to force vomiting).

He combined his explicit and tacit knowledge. Now he knew the symptoms of Calabar bean ingestion from research and experience. If a patient told him symptoms, he wouldn’t need to comb through bookish knowledge – he’d know if they experienced poisoning because he did, too.

He ate poison to become a more complete toxicologist. And if his place in history has shown, the gambit was worth it. 5

The Knowledge of a Fulfilling Life

Tacit knowledge is difficult to teach directly. An experience (tacit knowledge) is a result of practicing a mechanism (explicit knowledge), not understanding the mechanism itself. It’s why we know that a happy mood is caused by specific neurotransmitters and neuronal firing, but we can’t just teach people “how to be happy.” The experience of happiness is tacit knowledge.

The same dichotomy goes for most emotions.

Knowing the difference between explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge, you can probably identify why there is common distaste of wisdom for “logical people”.

This is why: in this utilitarian culture, we can easily quantify (and thus, be proud of) feats of wealth, engineering, technology and product development. The pursuit of achievement and accumulation are well-known because it permeates Western culture. Explicit knowledge is understandable and respectable.

Conversely, skills like empathy, inner peace, acceptance, and finding purpose are tacit. And since “wisdom” is the only medium to communicate tacit knowledge without personally experiencing it, the value starts to get lost.

I don’t blame technologists and achievers for not understanding. It’s like typing something into Google Translate and translating it from language to language to language. At the end, it sounds nonsensical.

Shannon L. Addler Quote about Fear
Quote by Shannon L. Alder
After… (Translated to English to Chinese to Macedonian to Irish to English)

But, the human condition is no less important now than it was years ago.

The Importance of Wisdom

Being harder to understand doesn’t mean it’s unimportant.

I learned early on that achieving a goal you worked hard towards felt good. Like many “overachievers”, I felt this meant life was about always working towards things and wanting more. Consumption and creation was satisfying. And I, like many others, start to worship the hand of tangible progress.

It was my mistake. I ignored emotions because I saw them as unimportant fluff. I thought I knew what “true” fulfillment was because I felt it. Further, I ignored the other tacit values that scientifically lead to a fulfilling life. This mindset of achievement at all costs pervades my peer group.

That’s why meditation, gratitude, contentment, compassion, and other “transcendent” words sound meaningless (if not blasphemous) to high achievers. They all require an experience to comprehend their value, and it’s one that we are innately defending against. To be content means to lose your edge (or, that’s what they believe).

In reality, a fulfilling life recognizes and accepts the roles of both knowledge types to become a complete person. Wisdom might be hard to understand without personally experiencing it, but it doesn’t make it any less important.

That is, if your goal is to live a fulfilling life. That’s up to you.

A Takeaway in Wisdom Form

Sometimes, you must do a thing that you don’t entirely understand. Open your mind, and try it out. It may become the most important experience in your life.

And if it doesn’t seem like it’s worth the risk, think about why it isn’t. Maybe drugs for spiritual enlightenment seems way too dangerous: I can understand that. But try to tacitly understand its importance for others, even if you don’t agree. The world’s experiences are vast and varied, and though some aren’t for you, they might mean something to another.

Remember that knowledge is both explicit and tacit, and you will be able to appreciate the entire world.

(Thank you Nathan Kontny, for bringing the story of Robert Christison to my attention)


  1. This is an excerpt from page 666 (scary!) in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, Volume 165. The rest of the book is not so interesting.
  2. From the Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1899.
  3. Explicit Knowledge, as defined by Wikipedia and its sources.
  4. From Scientist-Philosopher Michael Polanyi’s magnum opus, Personal Knowledge (1958)
  5. This Christison story was from the book Who Goes First?: The Story of Self-Experimentation in Medicine. Some stories therein are slightly less successful.