"We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience." -John Dewey
Efficiency Concerns and the Pursuit of Expansive Knowledge
It’s difficult and time consuming to become an intellectual jack of all trades. It’s even more difficult for a non-specialist to make a contribution to human knowledge, since the majority of advances are made incrementally and at the fringes of disciplines. One more empirical study in Latin America seems to confirm a pre-existing theory about corporate behavior. Another empirical study questions the relevance of “Confucian capitalism” theories in Taiwan. One non-empirical study deconstructs the logic of four theories of this or that. And so the march of human understanding steadily moves forward.
By contrast, Thomas Kuhn’s theory of “paradigm shifts” suggests that massive progress might be achieved when totally new ideas emerge, ideas that more adequately explain the world than the ideas that came before. I think these totally new ideas could emerge from minds that can critically integrate lots of information. From the non-specialists. The gestalt seekers.
And this brings me back to the practical concern of…how much time do we expect to sit around and develop this broad base of knowledge? Of course, you could theoretically spend an infinite amount of time trying to learn everything there is to know, but being that indiscriminate about what you learn won’t help you make an original contribution any time soon. You will need to exercise some judgment and decide on some limits to the breadth of your understanding. These limits might emerge naturally, as you discover and develop your innate intellectual talents and interests, or you may have to impose them more or less arbitrarily. Having even a vague end goal in mind will make your knowledge acquiring efforts more efficient.
For example, this blog shows that although I’m interested in a variety of subjects, over time my interests seem congregated around self-actualization and its societal equivalent. What tools and procedures do societies use when they try to actualize themselves, or reach their highest potential? Well, I personally like to focus on social policy and entrepreneurialism. This interest guides most of my reading choices. It means I’m more likely to grab an issue of Wired off the newsstand than Architectural Digest.
And that’s one small step toward greater efficiency.
Another step in the right direction involves how you read. It’s taken me years to develop a reading and note-taking scheme that helps to ensure comprehension, retention, and doesn’t cost me hours and hours spent on a single article. I’ve shared most of this system (labelled “KB Study Guide”) on the Knowledge Buffet website— a website that a friend and I created to help people develop their knowledge base more efficiently.
And yet, you should appreciate the fact that there is a learning curve whenever you approach any intellectual discipline for the first time. Even the most advanced, efficiency-oriented system of note-taking cannot speed up the time it takes your brain to naturally assimilate new information (although “neuroenhancing” drugs might bend this principle a bit). It’s going to take time to become familiar with specialized jargon and the implicit assumptions of different fields; in the beginning, expect them to slow you down while you’re reading or taking notes. Enough time and patience while you develop a foundation will pay dividends later on: your reading and note-taking speed will increase, and you will be able to tackle more in less time.
And that’s good because in a world of intellectual ambition, time is your most valuable commodity and efficiency is your most potent principle.