Wisdom, Insight

Some Things Can’t Be Taught… But They Can Be Learned

The school of real life and the difference between knowledge, wisdom and insight

Looking back on my first couple of months working with Upwords, I have come to realize that there is a difference between what I was taught in class and what I need to know to be successful in qualitative research. I just completed a one-year Research Analyst college program that ended with a coop placement. This was meant to help students gain some work experience and put into practice the things we had learned in the classroom. I’m so glad this was part of the program! I want to say I almost learned more in the three months working for Upwords than in the seven months sitting in class. One thing is for sure, I learned very different things. Everyone is familiar with phrases like “learning by doing” or “some things can’t be taught” that suggest there are certain things that are not easily learned in a classroom. I came to realize that not everything can be taught in school.

What school CAN teach well

This is in no way meant to say that school does not have its place or is a waste of time (or money). Schools are good at teaching knowledge. For example, they can teach an aspiring researcher about definitions of terms like ‘demographics’ or ‘grounded theory’, industry-standards in presenting charts and which ethical considerations to keep in mind when designing and conducting research. These things are good and necessary to know for working in any form of quantitative or qualitative research. Other things, however, turn out to be quite different in reality than what I was taught in school: from report formats (WORD vs. PPT) to the length of projects (our ‘practice project’ was spread out over 2 semesters while ‘real life projects’ in market research were often around a month from start to finish) – I had to adjust and re-learn certain things when I transitioned from school into the working world.

Beyond those rather tangible details, there was something else. I would argue that it comes down to the difference between knowledge, wisdom and insights.

Insight is the deepest level of knowing

Many articles have been written about knowledge, wisdom and insights; even the dictionary has an explanation of the difference between knowledge and wisdom. The following definition fits especially well for the context of businesses: “Knowledge is the accumulation of facts and information. Wisdom is the synthesis of knowledge and experiences into insights that deepen one’s understandings and actions. In other words, knowledge is a tool, and wisdom is the craft in which the tool is used.” I also like the definition of insight as “the deepest level of knowing”, which I think really brings it to the point.

To apply this definition to my personal story: I would say I learned knowledge in school. But only the practice of using the knowledge and applying this ‘tool’ to specific research projects helped me gain wisdom and experience. Through this process I learned how to uncover insights, which are what we strive for in each new research project.

How to uncover insights

A teacher in a classroom cannot teach you “if client X asks you Y as a research question, you can tell him XYZ insights as an answer” – research, by definition, is done because we DON’T know something. We do not have the answers yet when we start a new project. Working in research means to uncover and compile NEW insights to answer a research question about something previously unknown. I have learned it is these insights that help clients make meaningful human connections to enable better decision making.

In qualitative research, insights are discovered by reading between the lines, interpreting and summarizing the answers of a group of people. This cannot be taught in school and requires that wisdom (or applied knowledge) I mentioned before. Insights are rarely stated directly by participants; and even if they are, it takes wisdom to recognize them.
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What exactly are insights?

While in school, there are right and wrong answers because it wouldn’t be possible to evaluate students if there weren’t. Now in ‘real life projects’, I cannot transfer that thinking onto our research. We tell participants at the beginning of each project: there are no right or wrong answers, just your opinion, you as the participant are the expert on this topic. THAT is what’s valuable in qualitative research. No classroom could have prepared me for all the opinions, views and perspectives I encountered in real conversations with real people. Every conversation and story of each participant is unique. During my time at Upwords, I have observed Bronwen and Layla skillfully digging deep to gain understanding into the views and opinions of participants (that aren’t right or wrong). I am learning that interpreting them cannot be achieved by having the same approach every time. Ultimately, it is that interpretation of what we hear from our participants that produces unique insights for clients.

The continuous school of real life

In many ways, working in qualitative research makes me feel like I never left school, in the best possible way! The projects we work on are almost as diverse as our participants; they include many different industries and sectors. Most projects are completely new topics to me, not necessarily fields I am an expert in. We immerse ourselves in those topics during the project and uncover the insights. And then we become the client’s teacher – so to speak – by sharing the insights we discovered and what they mean for their business. You never truly graduate from the school of real life – like a tree continues to grow, there is always room to grow in wisdom and always new insights to be uncovered.



Johanna Simpson

About the author: Johanna Simpson recently completed the post-graduate Research Analyst program at Georgian College. She started her coop work term with Upwords just as the global COVID pandemic was starting. We threw a wide variety of online qualitative challenges her way and she passed with flying colours, all from her virtual office. We’re thrilled that she agreed to join our core team as an Insight Analyst in September 2020.