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Four Stages of Knowledge and Travel

As far as my observations can tell, there are four stages of knowledge that most people pass through on the way from becoming a novice to a master of a given practice. When I hear someone talk about something, I make sure to note what stage they seem to be in, where I stand in [...]

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As far as my observations can tell, there are four stages of knowledge that most people pass through on the way from becoming a novice to a master of a given practice. When I hear someone talk about something, I make sure to note what stage they seem to be in, where I stand in comparison, and then tend to my side of the conversation accordingly.

Wade and a stone scholar in China

The four stages of knowledge

1. The novice

This stage goes without explanation, people who are just getting into something  tend to be all ears about it, they know their minds are like a bowel of mushy rice — ready to absorb what ever is thrown into it. The person who knows that they don’t know and is in a prime position to learn. The Buddhists call this beginner’s mind, and stress for everyone to stay in this phase of the pursuit of knowledge.

When it comes to traveling, if someone who is truly interested in world travel but has never done much of it themselves asks me a question about how to live abroad and move through the planet, I find myself speaking a lot. I know that this person is truly interested in hearing what I have to say, and will try to take something from my words. I know that my words will find a fertile planting place, I suck up the energy and speak. I know that they will listen without feeling prone to show off their own knowledge of the subject.

2. The foolish expert

This seems to be the second stage of knowledge acquistion that most people find themselves caught up in. The foolish expert stage is the step that comes right after being a novice, and usually happens once a person becomes familiar with the basics of a given practice, knows the vocab, have devoured the intro texts, and knows much more than someone who has not pursued the particular field of knowledge at all. But all too often the foolish expert will mistake their mastery of the basics as a mastery of the practice, and act as though they know it all. This superficial sense of mastery often comes from a superficial level of exposure. The foolish expert stage is like looking into a cardboard box and mistaking it for an entire house.

It is this second stage of knowledge that I find perticularly onerous. Though it is my impression that nearly everyone who pursues a trade, subject, hobby, sport, or activity goes through this stage as a neccessary right of passage. I have even found myself in it at various points in my life — even in reference to travel:

On my second jaunt of travel through South America I thought I was king shit — I had dipped my toes into the sea of travel on a previous trip to Ecuador and thought I was swimming. I just did not know how big the pool was I was jumping into. It took me another year before I moved into the third stage of knowledge and realized how big my undertaking really was — vagabonding the world — and how little I knew of it.

When in conversation on a topic with someone who is in the second stage of knowledge I keep my mouth shut. I know that my words can not find a way in edgewise, I am talking to someone who thinks they know, and people who know all too often sacrifice the ability to learn. In terms of travel, I all too often meet backpackers who have been on the road for a few months and speak as if they have rounded the world five times over. They tell me where to buy cheap flights, what constitutes a good hotel, brag about their bartering ability, and try to show off their tip of the iceberg knowledge. I often find much of what is said to be bullshit, knowing that I could probably offer some good advice, but I often just sit back and listen, nodding my head, waiting for the onslaught to cease — perhaps feeling that that all breath would be spent in verbal competition: my words smashing up against theirs and landing wasted upon the floor. Thus, the expert is often rendered a fool (as I once was).

3. The practitioner

The third stage of knowledge is perhaps the most humbling. This stage usually arises when the “foolish expert” realizes how little they really know about a given practice. It happens when someone realizes that the path to mastery is far longer and rockiery than the learning of the basics. People in this stage tend to suck in knowledge, their practice becomes refined, and knowing how much they do not know (yet again) sparks a new drive for mastery.

Conversations based in this stage of knowledge often have limitless possibilities.

4. The master

If a person masters one thing in their life then I would say they did pretty well. Very few people master anything, ever dwelling in the lower three stages of knowledge or giving up the pursuit all together. I have never mastered anything, but I truly enjoy listening to people speak who have.

Nobody will ever be a master of world travel. The people who tell you that they are experts or pros are either phonies or need to proclaim themselves as such for marketing. Who would listen to someone if they did not profess themselves to be a master?

Do you listen to me?

I attempt to write from the third stage of knowledge — I have experience to back myself up but I am still nibbling on the crust of the globe like some sort of lemming — and though I know that I don’t always nail it this is the frame of reference through which I try to see myself in the context of travel, in the context of the world. Nearly 12 years of regularly moving about the planet has just put me in a position to learn more than ever.

It is ridiculous for someone to say that they have mastered world travel, as the object of the practice is infinitely vast and changes nearly as fast as someone can learn it. Almost every situation in travel is different, and though experience leads to patterning, the traveler’s rote forms of action are always subject to surprise. I publish travel tips that are more representative of my blunders than my genius, as, paradoxically perhaps, the former is often requisite to produce the later. All travelers make mistakes, misinterpret their surroundings, prove themselves stupid a hundred ways over, and create the mishaps that are the prime material for further learning. To master travel would be to wall yourself off from the experience of traveling itself.

On the road, we are all newbies. Or, more poignantly, the master traveler is the one that has nobody else around to recall their f’ck ups.

This is perhaps what makes traveling so enjoyable: you can never master it, and there is never any pressure to. World travel is an endless pit of learning, a black hole of new experience, a road that does not end. Perhaps this is why traveling so easily becomes an addiction — it is a mountain whose summit you can never surmount. How can you grow bored of something that can provide more than a lifetime of new riddles, paths, challenges, and lessons?

The master vagabond is not someone who can give the best tips, knows the best hotels, the cheapest meals, has trekked where nobody has trekked before, or the one who can tell the best stories. No, the master traveler is the one who is having the most fun.


Filed under: Travel Lifestyle, Travel Philosophy

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3691 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: Trenton, Maine

4 comments… add one

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  • Andy Graham May 14, 2011, 4:37 am

    Excellent analysis Wade.

    I would call myself a master of:
    1. Real Estate
    2. Internet
    3. Travel

    or Expert

    Now, I the reason I am saying this, even though it somewhat disagrees with your definitions.

    I am also a carpenter, but I am not an expert carpenter, or master carpenter. The reason is because I am not in say the top 2 percent of all carpenters.

    I am in the top 2 percent of people who make web pages.
    I am in the top 2 percent of people sell real estate.

    However, reading one book per month will put you in the top 2 percent of people on the planet who read books.

    A master is a person who has left some great percentage behind, and one day comes to the epiphany that it has become incredibly difficult find a person to follow.

    I would guess you are in the top 2 percent of people who have knowledge of the geography of travel. Take all the people who have traveled the planet, and you are for sure in the top 2 percent.

    There is one day, when a light comes on, and you know you have become a master, whereby at this point, you will know there is no reason to doubt yourself. This is also the realm of high self-esteem.

    There is no respect for masters, contrary to this stupid crap in movies, 99 percent of people will only be jealous, and 1 percent will sort of be your sponges.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com May 14, 2011, 1:34 pm

      Good response, Andy,

      I set forth what a master wasn’t, but you said what a master is. I agree with your definition of a master as someone who is better than 98% of the people in a given practice who no longer can easily find anyone who knows more than them to learn from.

      “There is one day, when a light comes on, and you know you have become a master, whereby at this point, you will know there is no reason to doubt yourself. This is also the realm of high self-esteem.”

      Good insight. All too often attempts at humbleness defile a person’s projection of themselves as a master. I published a blog entry once about my grandfather in law, who was one of the founders of sustainability science. I basically called him a master in the piece, but he became upset with me projecting him as such and said that my words impeded upon his attempts at humility. But, by anyone’s standards, he IS a master: they don’t give out Nobel prizes, MacArthur Genius Awards, and Presidential Medals of Science to someone who is any less.

      We come from a culture where mastery is often a cause of embarrassment. Perhaps because, as you put it, mastery of a given practice 99% of the time provokes jealousy rather than people who want to learn from you.

      Perhaps this is why I will not call myself a master of world travel. Humbleness can be used as a shield.

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  • Bob L May 16, 2011, 12:48 am

    QUOTE—–NOVICE – Most likely to talk about the subject like they know it all. —–END QUOTE

    Maybe this would be called the Pre-Novice, as a true novice really knows they don’t know. In my motorcycle classes, I get a lot of novices, but sometimes get people who think they know everything because they had a little experience way back when. These are the hardest to train.

    So maybe these categories apply to those truly seeking knowledge.

    But then, I consider myself a Foolish Expert in many things by your definitions.

    Your descriptions of the steps to knowledge are well said. Frankly, if given the choice, I would like to stay in Stage 3: The practitioner forever. It seems most interesting and rewarding.

    Mastery of world travel…… You did not explain when one is considered a master. My view of a master in anything is something along the lines of someone who can adapt to all circumstances in the field. This does not mean the person know everything about the field, but that they can learn everything ab out the field. A master in, say, electrical may not know every detail of every new product, but they know what questions to ask and they know when something is over their head. They know when they are in new teritory, and know how best to handle themselves to adapt. Most importantly, to me, they know when they are handling things badly. This can be because they are acting like they know everything, or because they are letting a bad situation get to them or whatever. I have run into people who consider themselves masters, but as soon as they are thrown a curveball, they have no answers. The question is not in the book, so there is no answer. Not, they don’t have an answer, but there is NO ANSWER. No posibility of one, and maybe the problem does not exist…….

    You, Wade, I would consider a Master. You know, if sometimes after the fact, when you are being foolish. You know how to adapt, almost instinctively. You know when you make mistakes. You know when you are doing things right. THIS to me is a master.

    As for travel, I would hope I am #1 or #3. I know I am NOT #4, I probably dither between # 1 and #2, mostly hanging at #2. I am more likely #2, the most undesireable, but unavoidable stage of any learning.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com May 16, 2011, 9:42 am

      Good finishing polish. I must admit that I did not really define what I feel a master is in this entry apart from someone who knows all the “moves,” etc. I think Andy put it well when he said that a master is in the top 2%, that they are people who still want to learn more but have a difficult time finding anyone to teach them or who knows more than them.

      I suppose the pursuit of knowledge never has an end point. You don’t just say, “Whew, I’m a master now, now I don’t need to practice any more.” I suppose a true master is even more aggressive in the pursuit of their practice than a novice — as their opportunities for learning become less and less the more knowledge an experience they acquire. But, there will always be something more to learn in any practice, and the pursuit of mastery is always a continuous quest.

      I believe that you are a master of motorcyclemanship (perhaps I made up this word) and motorcycle travel. You may not have zipped over the entire planet yet on a motorcycle, but if you did I I sure that you could figure out any obstacle that would lie before you and adapt to oncoming circumstances very well.

      It seems as if you put it well when you stated that the master is a person who has enough knowledge and experience to face what is thrown at them or to know when to run. In an ever changing world of infinite possibilities true mastery means the ability to mold yourself to a situation and come up with innovative solutions and get through to the other side.

      In this sense, perhaps someone could master the approach to world travel.

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