I have a Workflowy that is full of prompts and thoughts and suggestions that I’m trying to pare down. I do that by deleting things that I don’t care about, combining things that can be combined, and sometimes when I find something interesting enough, I write about it.
Paul Graham has a list of FAQs on his site, and one of them is “What should I read to know more about history?” And he makes a very interesting point in response. He says, “The way to do it is piecemeal. You could just sit down and try reading Roberts’s History of the World cover to cover, but you’d probably lose interest. I think it’s a better plan to read books about specific topics, even if you don’t understand everything the first time through.”
This is completely consistent with pretty much everything that I enjoy doing, and continue to enjoy doing, and it’s also revealing to me how silly some of my attempts at learning things have been. While I’m barely decent at playing the guitar despite having been in loose contact with guitars for pretty much a decade, I’m good enough at it that I can have fun with it. It brings me some pleasure. I can sit down and deconstruct some things, I can appreciate good musicianship when I see/hear it, and I can imagine how guitar playing and music will continue to accompany me throughout my life. It will be a source of joy. And the way I have learnt it is piecemeal.
I suppose the same could be said for reading and writing, too. I went through a phase where I pretty much read everything I could get my hands on, and then I went through a non-phase where I ATTEMPTED to have structured, planned reading– and that never actually worked out for me the way I wanted to, I never got around to reading the books, it felt like too much of an obligation. And lately I’ve been reading books by just scanning my bookshelves at random and picking out things that excite me– or sometimes buying books that excite me, even though I have this big bookshelf full of books at home.
The same sort of applies to writing, too. Every attempt at some sort of grand writing project ended up sputtering and failing. This one is the most successful one so far, and I think the reason it works so well is because I’ve deliberately chosen NOT to decide what it’s about. I’m just writing whatever I feel like writing, and I’m committing to a volume of 1,000,000 words. Everything else is fair game. If I want to change direction in the middle of the project– or hell, even in the middle of a specific vomit– I can do that.
I totally see the value in having works that are carefully structured, by the way. I think it’s important to have good catalogues that are searchable, accessible, A to Z, start to finish, so on. But I don’t think that’s how learning happens, at least for me (and it seems, for Paul Graham. Which is flattering.)
I think learning is a lot about desire. We need to pay attention to what we’re burningly curious about, what we really, really want to know. If we’re tasked with learning something, or we task ourselves with learning something, such as programming or design, I think doing a 101 course is actually painful and boring. I’ve avoided saying this outright so far because it can seem rather condescending, pompous, self-important. I don’t want to insult anybody who’s ever done something as noble as take the time to write a 101 for anybody else.
Perhaps this only applies to anxious, edgy people who are constantly teetering on the edge of boredom and fiddlesomeness. For people like us, I think it makes a lot of sense to just ask, “What do I really, really want to know?” And then you figure out that problem space. And then you figure out what you need to know to solve that problem, and then you solve those things, starting from the most interesting thing. The cool thing about that is– once you learn one interesting thing, everything else that’s connected to that interesting thing becomes slightly more interesting than it was before you knew that first interesting thing.
So for example… say you’re learning how to cook. The first thing you should do is learn how to cook a dish that you really want to make. If it’s an incredibly complex dish, then you’ll want to find out what are the simpler versions of that dish you need to learn to make first– and these simpler dishes are now interesting because they’re steps en route to the more interesting dish.
Once you’ve learnt how to make the really interesting dish, you’ll find that there are a bunch of similar dishes you could make just by changing a little thing here or there. So say you’ve gotten good at working with some sort of pasta. By changing the sauce or something, you can now make a whole different set of pasta. You might not have wanted to learn to make that pasta from scratch, but since now you can make Pasta A, and it takes very little additional effort to also make Pasta B, you can effectively double your repertoire for very little effort. And the prospect of doubling your repertoire with very little effort is always a very interesting thing.
This is quite mind-expanding for me right now. Too often I’ve allowed myself to get mired in trying to follow extensive guides and elaborate histories and all sorts of things like that. What I should really be doing is identifying specific things that I’m curious about, and then seeing what I’m curious about after that. Once you’ve done this a series of times in a chain-effect sort of way (this has definitely happened for me in some ways– when learning music, I think that happened for me at some point when I had experienced the most growth as a musician), you may then find that a whole bunch of your learnings fit into a neat, complete package that’s worth meditating on.
That said, even then… I think the way I’ve been expecting myself to learn things has been very backwards. The better solution SEEMS inelegant, but it works because it does what’s most exciting. It brings the most energy to the table, and the chain reaction is more powerful than trying to slowly get from page 1 to 2 to 3.
The way to do it is piecemeal.