I love to learn. I consume information ravenously. My normal mode of operation is to go on six-week deep dives into specific subjects, one or two subjects at a time, and then move on to another deep dive shortly after I complete the current one.
My general approach is to first survey the landscape and get a general sense of the subject’s natural outline. I try to identify the best sources to represent the two largest viewpoints on the subject, along with some quirky “third way” point of view. I tend to think of these as McDonalds, Burger King and Wendy’s. Or Windows, MacOS and Unix. You can pick for yourself which is which; I’m not interested in a holy war at this point in time. Another way of thinking of it is in brand terms. In most markets, there is a dominant brand (like a Coke) that far far outsells any other brand, and tends to present itself on its own terms. Then there is almost always a single “top competitor” number two brand (like a Pepsi), that is easily identified by the fact that their advertising tends to focus on comparisons with the number one brand. These two brands usually dominate more than fifty percent of the market, or at least more than fifty percent of the “mind share” of the market. Then there is often a clear number three (like a Dr. Pepper) that tends in its advertising to present itself as “other”, “quirky”, and for people not interested in the traditional competition between one and two. Anyway, I often find that in fields of knowledge, you can find a similar division among theories/opinions/schools of thought/etc. And I like to simplify while still getting a balanced picture. Thus my approach.
In addition to trying to identify the major schools of thought on a subject, I also will look for some sort of natural taxonomy to describe the major categories of the subject. This divides the subject study into a matrix, if you will, with subcategories on one axis and schools of opinion on the other. From there, I go to town.
Now, it’s not actually as formal and deliberate as all that. Rather, the above is merely a description of what I observe myself doing when I study how I study. I actually do it in a much more organic fashion, feeling my way around, working from the outside in, until I learn whatever it is I can learn before I get distracted by some new pursuit.
And I do this from subject to subject, bouncing around, all the time. Sometimes one subject will lead naturally into another, like cooking into baking into food science. Or like the history of jazz music to playing jazz piano to music theory. But sometimes the jumps are completely incongruous, like game theory to Russian history to number sequences. And sometimes I get stuck on something longer than six weeks. Sometimes a lot longer. I also occasionally return to previously visited subjects. But one way or another, I am always doing this.
But I’m not doing it with any specific purpose in mind. For me, it’s mostly about entertainment. It’s just something I find joy in. I am just a very curious person, I suppose.
That said, it would be incorrect to assume that this habit serves no purpose. I may not intend a purpose, but I have found plenty of purpose, after the fact, in my various random explorations of knowledge.
For instance, my deep dive into serious chess (which lasted a lot longer than six weeks, and which I still return to now and then) taught me ways of ordering my thinking process when analyzing the position on the board before selecting a strategy for the next phase of a game. I have found that that same thinking process is easily repurposed when faced with some structured, non-chess problem. Likewise, understanding Joseph Campbell’s concept of the “Hero’s Journey” has provided me insight when trying to figure out how to structure a sermon. And getting into the science of baking using ratios has given me new insight into different ways of organizing any given process-oriented field of study.
I call this “mental cross-training”. When an athlete cross-trains, they participate in a second sport or athletic activity besides their “official” sport, in order to improve the health and performance of particular muscles, general endurance, or other traits important to their “main” activity. Mental cross-training is the same for me. Except I very rarely have any idea what benefit I will get from any particular subject when I first start. But I almost always find an application after I have finished.
I suppose this is one way of understanding what colleges mean by a “well-rounded” education. I know, what they are mostly saying is that there are no major gaps in their curriculum. But you can also pursue the idea of “well-roundedness” in terms of trying to expose yourself to as many different ideas as possible, because the cross-pollination of those ideas in your fermenting mind will produce wholly new things that cannot be planned for but that will most surely enrich your life.
I credit my father to a great degree for teaching me this. He regularly advocated “keeping your options open” when it came to education. He encouraged people to explore as many different things and to be exposed to as many different ideas as possible, so as to have access to as many different tools, paths, options, as possible when contemplating your future. And from what I could tell, that’s how he lived his life. That’s how he stumbled into a job interview he wasn’t supposed to be in, that nevertheless led to a life-long career in a company that he loved and that treated him well. That’s how he met Malcolm X somewhat randomly one afternoon while at college. And I can look back and see that’s how he often found new ways of thinking that he could then take to his consulting clients in order to help them find unique solutions to age-old problems.
And I guess it was only just today that I realized this about him. Thanks, Dad!