Existential Psychology

How To Know If You Understand Something

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Beginners usually think they know much more than they actually do because they haven’t bumped up against any limitations yet. You can’t know what you don’t know. If you have little frame of reference it’s as easy to believe you know almost everything about a subject as it is to believe you know almost nothing about it, and of course it’s much more pleasant to go with option number one.

This tendency to overrate ourselves points to the need to consider whether we really are at the level we believe we are at or if we could benefit from more work and growth in that area. Learning is continuous of course, but there does seem to be a qualitative stage where a person reaches mastery and then continues to hone his craft from there. But where is this stage and how do you know you’ve reached it?

In terms of knowledge some key factors to consider are whether you can explain the topic simply, whether you can talk and write about it without having to consult any external sources, and whether you consider whatever it is you have explained to be just a sliver of your underlying knowledge base. If you can meet these three criteria there is a very strong chance you have mastery over the subject.

If you don’t meet these criteria there is no reason to be discouraged because everyone must pass through the same fire, but it probably means you need to keep delving, to keep expanding your knowledge base in order to see the whole picture more clearly. Some of us get down on ourselves and feel like giving up when we start to become consciously aware of limitations to our knowledge, but we should instead celebrate our progress because realizing what we can’t do is a sure sign that we are getting better at what we can do. Just keep going and soon your confidence will be based on fact rather than wishful thinking.