The thing with knowledge is that it is vast. So if you want to become an expert on something, first you should specialize in a subarea. For example, if you have a Physicist’s degree, you can study Materials Physics, then move deeper into Nanotechnology, and then even deeper into, let’s say, Nanomedicine. You will most probably end up going for a post-doc, becoming somewhat of a specialist in your chosen field. But what about all the other areas? What if you want to master a wide variety of topics?
Reading to gain knowledge, not reading to waste time.
First, you should specify what you read, how you spend your time. Most people catch the occasional news bulletin, browse through articles on the web, and most of the time they follow the latest trends in a specific field of interest. Unfortunately, this system hardly works. This type of reading serves a purely informational purpose. With some exceptions for the last part (the trend following), you don’t gain knowledge this way. Obtaining knowledge is actually a little bit harder. When you read an article about artificial intelligence or watch a documentary about volcanoes, you may think that, from that point on, you have a strong grasp of -if not mastered- the subject. That is not actually the case. If you try to reproduce what you learned to another person a week later, there’s a good chance you won’t remember a lot, or maybe only some more generic things, which will also fade in time. Seriously, the next time you read something interesting, and a little bit difficult, out of your field of expertise, and you feel “aha, I see”, try to explain that to someone else. You will realize that the “aha” moment was only temporary, lasting only a limited period of time after the reading.
The goal should be to study something, to put some actual effort in learning as much as you can about it. Understand, repeat and take some action. For example, this site is part of an active process of learning. In general, this process consists of some stages. Pick an issue, gather material and books, make some comparative reading, take notes, discuss with others and try to explain what you have learned, and finally write an article about it. Although this may sound more challenging, and of course time-consuming, I can say that it yields better results. The “actually learning” process is one of the scopes of the site, but I will cover that later on.
How to acquire knowledge?
The second thing you might consider is that the evolution of science and the birth of new knowledge is advancing rapidly. How am I supposed to learn everything? Where should I begin? Who and what should I read/study?
You should be picky here. Invest in the best. Because if you really enjoy reading, you believe that the amount of books you can read is infinite. Let’s say that you are on your easy thirties and live in a developed country. The life expectancy is about 80, so you have, give or take, another 50 years to live. In addition, let’s make a second hypothesis, that you read 1 book per month. This amounts to 12 books per year. This means that, if you don’t get hit by a truck or something by the time you’ve finished reading these lines, you have 600 more books to read until you reach your eighties. Up until now you might have thought that you have no time limit, and so, infinite books that you can read, but the actual number of books you can read is restricted, finite. So you should choose wisely what you are going to read.
Learn From the Best
For me, there are two points. The first is that if I want to learn something, there are people wiser than me, who have invested time and energy to master their fields, so you should go on and read their writings. This is a major point. Those people are much wiser and more knowledgeable than me, and I use them as guides in learning.
How to Connect this vast knowledge?
The second point is a little bit more complicated. I want to learn everything and get a better understanding of the world, from physics and maths, to psychology, economics and data science. In order to do that, in order to understand the world, I take the most important parts from every field, and try to create some mental models in my mind. This is actually a term used by Charlie Munger (Billionaire, Warren Buffet’s right hand man, and learning machine). I try to create an interconnected mind map in my brain. For example, I study about the biases of human reasoning. One part of this subject involves psychology and another part economics. After I read about biases and human reasoning, I can switch a little bit easier to either economics or psychology. Let’s say I choose economics. Economics in turn will develop my Maths skills a little bit, so that I can eventually turn to Maths and already have a map in my mind were everything is connected with something else. To give another example: lately, I have been getting acquainted with Photography. A critical part of Photography is Lenses. If you don’t simply care about just changing the lenses in your camera, you should know a little bit about Optics, which is a specific subcategory of Physics. In addition, some rules of composition in photography are actually the same in cinematography and video making. Do you see how the dots connect?
More about mental models and the learning process in the next article…