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The Four Stages of Knowledge

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My father never really made the transition from mechanic to technician.

He could have if he wanted to. I’m sure of that. But, by then he had already traded his roll-away for a computer. He came close, though, close enough to know a ball-peen hammer was an ‘essential tool’ when road testing a Ford with electronic ignition and an intermittent stall and die.

What intrigued all of us was his uncanny ability to diagnose a vehicle he hadn’t worked on simply by listening to it as he walked by. He would walk by, stop for a second, tilt an ear toward the engine compartment, press a leg against the fender or lay his hands on the vehicle, look over at whoever was working on it and simply say, “It’s lean,” or, “It’s late,” or whatever else was ailing the vehicle.

It could have been an electronic fuel injection system he’d never worked on or a computerized electronic ignition system he wasn’t even remotely familiar with, but after the third or fourth time it turned out he was right no matter how hard you worked to make him wrong. So you listened. You listened even if that uncanny ability to dive deep into the belly of the beast and emerge with a pearl left you scratching your head.

It had to be a trick, some kind of magic. But, whatever it was, it was good, and 30 years later I’m still impressed. The interesting thing is, despite the fact I have no idea how he managed to know what was going on intuitively, I found myself doing the same thing recently on a 1974 Plymouth Duster that just didn’t want to run like it could have or should have. 

You’ve had them in the shop. I know you have. A vehicle that looked absolutely perfect, pristine, and it ran just as poorly as it looked good. This little Duster was beautiful. The only problem was it wouldn’t run, at least, not well. To compound things, everything you touched under the hood was legitimately “torched.” The carburetor had been replaced and was actually the wrong application for the engine. The distributor was wrecked and the harmonic balancer had walked leaving the timing mark somewhere on the dark side of the moon. 

Staff Graphic

Everything we did to the vehicle brought it closer to ‘right.’  Yet, it still wasn’t running as well as an old Duster with a slant six should. 

It wasn’t ‘mine,’ meaning I wasn’t the one working on it. It seems that somewhere along the way, someone had swapped my roll-away for a desktop computer of my own. But, that didn’t stop me from heading out to the Duster whenever I could to see what was going on. I’d walk over to the vehicle, strain to hear what it was trying to say to me. I’d press my body up against the fender and lay a hand on whatever I could, whatever provided the insight I knew I needed to ‘be’ the engine in some strange way.

I know, it sounds very Zen, which makes the whole thing even stranger because my father knew little or nothing about Zen. And, yet, he knew everything about it, which I guess is very Zen.

The first time, I looked over and said, “It’s running like it’s lean.” And, it was.

The second time, I said, “It’s running late.” And, it was.

And, then, finally, “It’s running like the valves are too tight? Have we checked them?” The answer was, “No,” and, they were tight. In fact, none of the valves had anything remotely close to clearance.

I’ve presented hundreds of breakouts and seminars on automotive shop management over the years and one of my favorite topics was and still is “The Four Stages of Knowledge.” It’s important for any shop owner to know what stage they’re in to effectively manage themselves and their staff.

The First Stage of knowledge is, you don’t know what you don’t know, which translates loosely as ignorance.

The Second Stage of knowledge is, you know what you don’t know. Knowing what you don’t know is the beginning of wisdom.

The Third Stage, and my particular favorite, is, you don’t know what you know. You’ve grown and learned so much, your foundation is so strong and so broad, you are able to know things you shouldn’t really know, understand things you shouldn’t really be able to understand, and ultimately do things you shouldn’t really be able to do!

The Fourth Stage of Knowledge is, you know what you know, which gives you the confidence you need to succeed, especially at what we have chosen to do as a career.

My father was functioning at a very high level of consciousness. He not only knew stuff he didn’t know he knew, he knew stuff he had already come to know he knew! After almost 50 years, I guess I’m walking right alongside him or maybe he’s still walking by my side. Either way, his legacy was substantial and his gifts in the way of experience and knowledge were priceless.

Mitch Schneider is a fourth-generation auto repair professional and the owner of Schneider’s Auto Repair in Simi Valley, Calif. He is an industry educator, author, seminar facilitator, and blogger at Contact him at

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