Over the weekend, I was riding up a chairlift (mountain biking) and talking to a college kid (stranger, don’t even know his name) and was asked an interesting question: when do I feel like I know enough to write about a subject. What the kid really wanted to know is a little more complicated and had term paper ramifications, but it got me thinking about what it took before I was willing to have an opinion in public.
I mention this simply because it's back-to-school time and what follows is a shorthand version of what I’ve learned about learning in my 25 years as an author/journalist. I’ve had to learn a lot of difficult subjects along the way and here's the shorthand version of what I found was the best way to get the job done.
1. The Five Books of Stupid
I think the actual number probably differs for everybody, but when I approach a new subject my rule of thumb is to allow myself five books worth of stupid. That is, I pick five books on a subject and read them all just as a way of familiarizing myself with the terminology. Truthfully, this is much of the battle. Most of what makes learning difficult is specialized language and it usually takes me five books to begin to have a feel for this language. But what this really means is that for the first three books, most of what I read I didn’t understand. The secret is to not get frustrated and to keep reading. A lot of what the brain does is pattern recognition and most of that takes places on an unconscious level. As long as I keep reading, then I’ll keep picking up tiny bits of knowledge and my pattern recognition system will start stitching these bits into bigger pieces. I’m building a scaffolding. Eventually, usually after five books worth, my brain has enough data to complete the scaffolding and I can see a first glimpse of the macroscopic picture. This is the point when real comprehension can begin to emerge. So how do I know when real comprehension has emerged? When I can start asking meaningful, articulate questions about a subject, then I usually feel confident I’ve got the basics.
2. Be The Idiot
This is what happens after I’m done reading those five books and have begun to formulate some intelligent questions on the material—I seek out people to talk to about the ideas. As a reporter, of course, I have an advantage. It’s a hell of a lot easier to call up a Nobel Prize winner when I’m calling on behalf of Forbes than it is if I’m trying to finish a term paper for Northern Podunk U., but one of the other things I’ve learned as a writer is that people love to talk about what they do. So if you can’t get the Nobel Prize winner, call one of his graduate students. As long as I’ve done my homework and can ask genuine questions, most people will talk. In fact, most won’t want to shut up. The point is to talk to people who are way smarter than I am and leave my pride at the door. I ask people to explain things to me as if I was four years old. I want to be the idiot in that conversation. How do you know I’ve talked to enough people? When the smart people start routinely telling the idiot he’s asking good questions then I’m sure I’m on the right track.
3. The Gap
Once I can start asking intelligent questions, I follow those questions into tangential areas. I try to use my curiosity as a way to surround a subject. This keeps me from getting bored and, because of specialization, because knowledge tends to be balkanized (experts know their subject, often not what’s going on next door), most interesting topics are usually the ones that are stuck between categories. These are the gaps. When I surround a subject I typically end up floundering around in those gaps. That’s because these are the places where we really just don’t know. And because I’ve followed my curiosity to get there, suddenly I’m stuck with burning questions that no one can answer. So I end up trying to answer them myself. Out of this frustration, I think, real learning actually starts.
4. Always Ask The Next Question:
The reporter’s creed is that three sources make a fact. This means that if three people independently tell me the same thing, then I can be pretty sure that thing happened. Magazines and newspapers and news shows will let me report a fact thrice verified as truth. But not so fast. Personally, I always figured there are plenty people more talented than I am, so I should probably do some extra work just to keep up. As a journalist, this lead me to calling a fourth person, then a fifth. Early in my career, on two separate occasions, when I called that fifth person, I got answers that conflicted with everything else I’d heard thus far. On both occasions, when I dug deeper into this conflicting data, an entirely different picture of the truth emerged. Everything I thought I knew was actually wrong. These days I don’t really feel like I’ve learned a subject until I’ve had this kind of revelatory butt-kicking. If my position hasn’t been thoroughly reversed at least once, then I still have more work to do.
5. Find the Narrative:
The only way I can be sure I’ve actually learned something is to tell it to someone else as a story. Actually two people. The first person is someone who is completely ignorant and usually a little bored by the subject. If I can turn all of this knowledge into a compelling narrative that holds this hostile audience’s attention and makes total sense, then I usually feel comfortable I’m halfway there. The next person I tell is an expert, and always someone not afraid to tell me when I got it wrong. If I can satisfy both camps, then I am comfortable starting to write about a subject.
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