Learning from the deep end

14 May 2018
14 May 2018
West Lafayette, IN
3 mins

Here’s a list of things that are really interesting.

Here’s a list of things that aren’t that interesting (on face).

For some reason, when we decide to teach ourselves or other people new topics, we almost always begin with the “basics” or the “beginner” material, which are never the most interesting parts of that field.

Sometimes, that’s necessary — you need to learn addition before you can think about shapes that live in √2 dimensions, and you need to learn about gravity before you can learn about Kugelblitz — black holes made of pure energy.

But most of the time, this start-from-the-very-basics attitude isn’t really necessary, and just adds to the boredom and cognitive load of starting to learn a completely new topic where you usually feel super dumb and unproductive. When I teach myself a new topic, I never start from the basics.

That’s not to say basics aren’t important, obviously; we have to learn foundational knowledge at some point. But it usually isn’t critical until far after the initial few weeks or months or even years.

Whenever we enter a completely new area of knowledge, like a new language or a new field of science or a new topic entirely like European history or programming, we should always try to start by learning about the most interesting parts of the field, which is unsurprisingly almost never the “beginner” material.

In my experience, just because something isn’t beginner material doesn’t mean it’s impossible to understand for novices. It might take some reading and re-reading, yes. But things that are super interesting and moderately challenging to understand are actually easier learned than things that are super boring and moderately easy, because we enjoy reading about things that are interesting to us.

I’ve found there are three productive ways to find the most interesting parts of a subject matter:

  1. Look for the frontiers, where active research is still happening. It usually takes some digging to decipher articles about bleeding-edge research in terms we can all understand, but when you finally get [new fancy tech X] and how it works, it’s worth the extra 72 Wikipedia tabs you had to open to get it.

  2. Look for intersections, where some part of this topic is intersecting with some other topic that you’re already into. Google is your friend here, too. When I first got interested in genetics and microbiology, I found this interesting story about Microsoft trying to improve how we store data in pieces of DNA (which is apparently super durable to data corruption compared to hard drives).

  3. Talk to someone that enjoys working or studying in that field, and ask them to tell you the most interesting story they have about it. Reddit’s AMAs (Ask-Me-Anything threads) featuring various experts is a neat tool to use here.

Ten times out of ten, doing any one of these three things will give you a more interesting first lesson than the chapter one, section one of a textbook, and give you a bigger, better picture of the topic at hand.


If you enjoyed this piece, you might also enjoy my next post, The Diversification Point, or what comes after Moore’s Law.

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