Threads

I have an excellent method for exploring new ideas or learning about new topics. This method works especially well when you have virtually zero background in the new area, and it feels too overwhelming to start.

This happens to people all the time. They decide they want to get into something new, but the incredible width and depth of new information feels daunting. I’ve worked with many clients who have exactly this problem, and countless more people I’ve just interacted with who express it. Since this method works really well, I’m going to share it with you.

Start with just one “thread.” What’s a thread, in this context? Literally any source of information pertaining to the new topic. Let’s say you want to learn about baseball. Your first thread could be anything – a Wikipedia article on a team, a person who works at a stadium, a book on the history of the sport. Interact with that thread – read the article, peruse the book, have a conversation with the person. That part’s easy, and probably what you would have done anyway. Here’s the actual method, though:

Your goal in that interaction is to come away with three more “threads” to follow.

So let’s say you’re talking to the friend that works in a stadium. Ask that friend whatever you want to know, but make sure you also ask for three different suggestions for new sources of information. A book he suggests, a show she watches, another person they think is also knowledgeable. Write these threads down.

Then pick one of the three and go interact. Watch that show, read that other book, talk to that other person. Make sure you get at least three new threads. So if you watch a show, maybe you write down the name of one of the people on it to look them up later because they seemed interesting or knowledgeable. Maybe you learned about a new player you want to follow on social media. Write them down!

Some of these threads won’t pan out or will go to dead ends, but that’s why you strive for three each time. Your list of interesting leads will grow and grow, and you’ll pick and choose the ones that seem most interesting. Sometimes you’ll find several threads lead you to the same new one, and then that one will become very enticing! Follow it, see where it leads.

In around 2012 or so, I became really, really interested in economics and political science. This is the method I used to learn about it. I started with a single blog that someone shared, but from there I read books, met economists, studied papers, and really fell into the world. I loved it, and the learning was phenomenal. After one particular three-hour conversation, a brilliant economist with the Canadian government asked me where I earned my Ph.D. That was one of the best compliments I’ve ever received, because I just learned what I did with this method.

It’s not groundbreaking or revolutionary, but it is very directed. The idea is loosely based on the small-world experiment; the basic idea is that all of these interesting pieces of information are connected, so you can start literally anywhere and if you follow enough threads you’ll become an expert. And more threads will point to better information, so all you have to do is be open-minded and follow any thread presented to you, and the natural way these things connect will lead you to good information.

The hardest part about this method is being very deliberate about getting three leads out of every interaction. If you don’t do that, you’ll lose inertia and end up just circling around the same dozen or so impact points, getting surface-level knowledge but never really going beyond it. But if you commit to turning each thread into three, your knowledge pool will grow forever. You can, of course, stop whenever you want – but learning is always a life-long journey. Take the long way home.

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