Learning the Context

When people first try to learn about a new topic, I think they often discourage themselves by trying to learn for mastery, instead of learning for “productive curiosity.”

Think of it like this: if you want to acquire a bunch of new objects, there’s something you need first: storage solutions. You need boxes for transportation, shelves for organization. You need somewhere to put all that stuff, and you need that place to meaningfully allow you to use that stuff effectively in the future.

Imagine you want to buy a whole new set of tools. If you walk to the hardware store and bring no means of transportation, it will be difficult to come back with tools! Even if they put the ones you want in bags for you, that’s a lot of stuff to carry in flimsy bags. And if you DO get all that back to your workshop, you don’t just want to dump every item you bought into one big pile on the floor – that wouldn’t make it very easy to use the tools in the future!

So, when you want to learn about something new, don’t focus on just memorizing as many facts as you can get your hands on. That’s like a big pile of unorganized tools. First, focus on a macro view – learn the specific jargon and language of the new topic. Go to where people go to ask questions about that topic and see the frequently asked ones. And see who answers! Dedicate some notebook space or specific files for the things you’ll learn, and to store links to things you want to learn later. It’s more important to identify the top five online sources of information about that topic than to find the first one and just start reading or watching everything in that one.

The point isn’t to try to memorize your way to mastery. It’s to give yourself the space to meaningfully absorb new information at a pace that keeps it useful to you. It’s to be able to engage intelligently with anything new you encounter. If you try the “rapid reading” technique, then you hit barriers where lots of information is dependent on other information you don’t have yet, so you keep running into brick walls unless you absorb everything in the exact correct order (and order which, of course, you don’t know). But if you first build the scaffolding, understand the context a little, then no matter what information you encounter you can learn a little from it and put it into the overall jigsaw puzzle, to be connected later as you fill in more and more gaps.

Pay attention to why different people want the information and how they use it. Know what kinds of filters are being applied – for instance, both a car salesman and a mechanic might know a lot about cars, but that information will come to you very differently depending on which source you ask a question. But if you don’t even know that there are such things as car salesmen and mechanics yet, then you aren’t prepared to intelligently get new information from either, even if they obviously have information to give you.

Context is key. Most of the time, it’s easy to get the rough shape of it if you take a little time to look. So if you’re headed for a new topic, take at least a little pause to climb up and get the lay of the land. Everything else from then on will be so much more effective.

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