Go Deep on a Specific Topic

One way to start on the path to mastering a subject area, is to pick one aspect of that subject and go really deep on it until you are confident that you have not only developed a working competence in it, but that you thoroughly understand the principles and rationales that underpin the body of knowledge that has been developed around the topic.

There’s several good reasons for doing this:

  • Focusing on a smaller topic is less daunting than setting out to master an entire field. Like eating the proverbial elephant one bite at a time.
  • The act of learning one specific aspect of a subject area will expose you to a range of connected topics – and you’ll get quite knowledgable on those topics too, meaning you’ll also achieve your original goal of mastering the broader subject area.
  • When you’ve learnt one thing really thoroughly, you’ll have the skills and confidence to learn almost anything to the same degree. You’ll know how hard it is and how much work needs to go into it.
  • Specialists and experts in a particular area tend to get more recognition than generalists (if recognition is part of what you are after)
  • You’ll go some way to overcoming the Dunning-Kruger effect. If you never really get your head deep into a topic, you can’t ever be confident you’re not delusional about your competence.

And here’s some ideas to get you started:

  • While learning photography, go really deep on lighting, make it your obsession on every picture you take for 6 months and compare your photos at the end.
  • While learning to be software developer in say Objective C, go really deep on memory management, don’t just learn about pointers, really understand what is happening at the physical level when you allocate, de-reference, clean up and so on…
  • While learning to be an artist, go deep on understanding where the colours in your paints originate from, find some clays yourself and make your own paint by grinding up pigment, mixing it with a binder, adding a solvent and so forth.
  • If you want to learn how to use Illustrator, just start with mastering the pen tool, or better still focus exclusively on understanding bezier curves. Actually understand the math behind it all, use the equations to plot points on paper and draw them by hand.

Way before publishing On the Origin of Species Charles Darwin spent something like 8 years focusing his attention on the study of barnacles. But in doing that, I bet he learnt a lot about all aspects of marine biology, dozens of related fields, how to work with peers, how to observe nature and writeup those observations, but perhaps more than anything he would have learnt a lot about the broader area of being a good scientist.