The Difference Between Knowledge and Experience


It starts with a traveler whom you meet on the road, no more or less special than any other…


You’re walking along a path in your life’s forest. Somewhere on your journey, you encounter a man (one of many, but this story starts with this man in particular). Perhaps you travel together for a while, perhaps you don’t, but eventually, during a break from walking, you get to trading stories.

He informs you that, somewhere down this very path, he met a strange fellow who did something magical. He took a fish, freshly caught, and suspended it over a fire. Now at this point, you know what fish are and you know what fire is, but the thought of putting the two together never occurred to you. Herein, you have heard about cooking. You’ve been told it exists.

The choice to believe this fellow or not is entirely yours. Lacking any fish of your own, it’s difficult to discern what would actually happen. Whether you believe or not, what you have is faith, and it is the first step in knowledge: an unvalidated belief that something makes sense.

In some versions of this story, there’s another traveler during this intermittent period who strongly believes that fire, applied to fish, will cause the fish to combust. Most of our experiences up until this point would certainly lend credence to this theory. Perhaps your faith wavers. Perhaps it doesn’t.

In further variations still, there is sometimes a third fellow traveler who actually has a hunk of what he tells you was once fish applied to fire, and that someone’s actually doing it nearby. He offers you a piece, claiming it to be a miracle. But it’s dry and ashy and unpleasant. What good is putting fish to fire anyways? Isn’t there enough food in the forest?

No matter how the story varies, you eventually bid each of your fellow traveler(s) farewell in their own turns and go off on your divergent paths.

The sum of all that has happened so far—all of the evidence and testimony you collected—is your knowledge, and allows you to render judgement.


Sometime later, you come across a lake, and there beside a campfire sits a man whom you have heard of before. As you were told, he is applying flames to fish, regardless of what you chose to believe or how you felt about it up until that point. He offers you some. It’s delicious and filling, and it sure beats the roots and fruits and berries you’d been restricted to scrounging for for all your life. Herein, you have witnessed cooking. This is the first step in experience.

As life goes, your time with this man ends. Enjoying this new idea of cooking, you follow the lake for a while. The fire-seared fish does you well. You burn it a few times, but always err on the side of more well-done, because of a warning the man at the campfire told you: never undercook meat. He gave other warnings, too, but that’s the one that really stuck with you.

Your path takes you away from the lake. Again, you lack fish, but not fire. Eventually, you get curious; back to your roots and fruits and berries, you start to apply heat to them as well…with mixed results. Repetition ruins at least one dinner. And a number of good berries. You try to place a shield between the fire and your food, because skewering it just doesn’t work like it did with the fish. You don’t know it yet, but you’ve figured out the idea of the pan. All you were doing was solving a problem…one that was once about fish.

You cross paths with other travelers. Some of them believe when you tell them how food+fire=cooking. Some do not. Perhaps a stroke of insight eventually hits you, or perhaps it’s something suggested by a fellow traveler, but you discover that adding food to boiling water—a practice you already take part in because you’re a smart traveler—bestows properties of the food to the water. By experimenting, you invent tea. Or stew. Possibly both. And to our standards, either would probably taste horrible.

But there’s something there, you tell yourself. You can taste it. Figuratively. Or literally. Both, in this case.

You continue to share your creations with fellow travelers, some offering to share in turn what they’ve created in their travels as well. You or someone else figures out what spices are. Salt becomes your gold standard. But all the time, every chance you get, you are refining your processes. Even dishes you like, you eventually get bored of, or the seasons change, or you otherwise run out of ingredients for them. You are forced to improvise & modify simply to continue. Maybe a mistake or two comes out just right. Years pass.

You could spend the rest of your life perfecting. Experimenting. Trading. Trying. From herein, you can’t be proved wrong, because what you have surpasses knowledge…and it all goes back to when a traveler once came and told you about a guy down the path, and how fish+fire=cooking. Remember when you thought he was crazy?

And that’s the difference between knowledge and experience.


Photo: MATCHS/Flickr