Education and Philosophy08 Sep 2009 08:07 pm

At each moment in our lives we are making decisions, choosing options, or performing actions which add to our knowledge and skill base. Often times we are doing a repetitive task or reviewing material we have long committed to memory but even in many of these situations we are deepening a skill or internalizing a bit of information.

When we choose to learn something new or expand the quantity of things we know we can look at that as horizontal growth and when we learn something more in depth or master a skill we can refer that as vertical knowledge or experience. A person who excels in horizontal growth is often referred to as well rounded or a jack of all trades, while our society tends to recognize and reward the obsessive vertical growth person for their mastery and heightened performance. These are the masters of knowledge in a specific discipline such as physics or medicine. These are the virtuoso pianists, Olympic athletes and skilled surgeons whose mastery and perfection earn our respect and admiration. Although more rare, sometimes a horizontal knowledge person amazes us with their encyclopedic knowledge such as a college professor or game show whiz.

Yet there is no person who is strictly a vertical or horizontal learner. Even the most dedicated and obsessive musician or athlete spends some time away from perfecting and deepening their treasured skill. The world class gymnast and concert cellist have other activities and skills that they engage in. Likewise even the most wide ranged thinker sometimes lingers on a fascinating morsel of knowledge deepening their familiarity with the subject.

All of us lie somewhere on the continuum between complete vertical and total horizontal knowledge. We all have activities and areas of interest that we have deeper and more cursory knowledge of or mastery over. One mode of knowledge and experience is not inherently better than the other.

This fact should help us all be more content and appreciative of ourselves. We can all find someone who is more dedicated or obsessive about a skill we’ve developed. If you happen to be a person who loves to bowl or play golf you will likely find someone who has a better average than you, if you like basketball and spend hours on your shooting you still will meet someone who has a higher free throw percentage than you.

At each moment we should be choosing what will give us more joy or add more meaning to our lives. There is so much to know, feel, perceive and experience. Our exact mix of horizontal and vertical experience is what makes each of us a unique and fascinating human being.

Society has a tendency to act as if all of life is a contest and each event has one winner and a lot of losers. Yet, the truth of the matter is life is rendered more rich and beautiful by each of our contributions of vertical and horizontal experience and knowledge. Each skill mastered or deepened and any addition to the sheer quantity of what is known, felt, experienced ior perceived makes all of human life more amazing.

Our preferred balance of vertical and horizontal experience changes from activity to activity. Someone who cooks like a chef may dance like a child, yet at each moment we are free to choose to move on or stay awhile. While we should not feel bad about the choices we make, we should also be tolerant of the choices of others. A person who is dedicated to one activity is not necessarily missing life or unhappy. No one way promises joy, each person must find the mix which works for them.

Jim Guido

3 Responses to “Horizontal and Vertical Knowledge”

  1. on 05 Apr 2015 at 5:07 am Robert Tonucci

    Did you originate this concept? I thought of it today when shaving, and Google-d it right away to see if others had thought of it before! “Vertical knowledge” vs. “horizontal knowledge,” it’s brilliant!

  2. on 05 Apr 2015 at 8:55 am Guido

    I came up with the idea of vertical and horizontal knowledge of my own many years ago when I was constructing my theory of intimacy. Yet, I would be surprised to learn that no one else ever made the same distinction.
    I’m glad you liked it.
    For related ideas you should go to the “word” section of and read my book Exploring Intimacy.
    I would love to hear any additional thoughts and observations you might have. Enjoy!

  3. on 06 Feb 2019 at 2:14 am BB


    Here we are 11 years later, and others have taken your concepts and run with them (perhaps as their own, blargh).

    I landed here after encountering the term “vertical knowledge” in the article referenced below.

    I work for a company of approximately 300 people, and I would like to share your article on our internal “intranet” (bulletin board style). May I have your permission, or would you direct me to where/how I might secure that permission?


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