Imagine that the year is 1985. Imagine that you are a 25-year-old. Let’s say that you have a choice between investing $20,000 into a balanced portfolio, or investing only $5,000 and then using the rest to buy yourself a new car. How much money would you have today in either scenario?
At a relatively friendly rate of 7 percent growth compounded over 35 years, in the first scenario, you would have a little more than $213,000. In the second scenario, with a similar rate of growth, over a similar range of time, you would have something like $53,000. That initial $15,000 difference, over time, becomes something far larger, growing much more aggressively.
To many people, this is not intuitive. They may have learned this in school, and they may have internalized the math, but it’s not immediately clear that the difference over time would go on to be that much. The reason for this is that our brains often think in linear terms, whereas compounding is a dynamic, nonlinear process. It’s not a matter of addition, but multiplication.
Knowledge accumulation in some sense works the same way. The more you have of it, the more you gain from the additional growth in knowledge. On one end, as you learn more, it gets harder to come across things that add more to your mind. But on the other end, when you do come across something new, you have a broader, more holistic lens to see it through. You have more patterns to connect it to, more sides to view it from.
The rote memorization we learn in many education systems around the world is an attempt at adding knowledge into our brains, one separate subject at a time, one specific fact at a time, in a linear pattern. It’s compartmentalized, which means that it only has so much room to grow.
But the knowledge we pick up when our deeper intuition is being refined by new patterns and new concepts works itself into an existing network of knowledge, not too concerned where the boundaries of one discipline start and end. When you are learning to cook, for example, you don’t break the experience down into chemistry and biology. You might have a recipe to guide you, but for the most part, you’re working with trial and error, refining your intuition until you can cook that perfect omelet. Learning about food chemistry and biology might help, but the immediate, visceral reality of omelet-making isn’t concerned with abstractions separated by linguistic boundaries that start here and end there.
The pure experience of reality comes before the different disciplines that we divide life into, and though these divisions may be useful when we work and when we talk about things, ultimately, they are all tied with each other, mixed into a tapestry of knowledge that is far less legible than the kind of knowledge we gain from taking one class about politics, another about economics. Our brain absorbs information naturally as a polymath would, but we often get in its way when we try to understand things in a compartmentalized manner.
One of the reasons that rote memorization, or an overly systematic attempt at summarizing a particular topic doesn’t work is that, when you do that, you learn whatever it is you’re learning without any real context. And without context, your brain doesn’t really know how to use it, which means that it doesn’t truly understand it, eventually forgetting it.
Let’s say you’re reading a book about the history of politics without much prior experience reading about the topic. You might pick up on things here and there, feeling like you’re learning something, but if I asked you to tell me exactly what you learned and what you remembered from that book three to four years later, the chances are that the answer would be: “not much.”
This would, however, change considerably if, say, there is a local uprising in the city, and you get to, firsthand, see the principles talked about in that book with your own eyes while reading it. Suddenly, you have context, and that context means that knowledge gets solidified in your mind.
On one level, this is saying something obvious: in order to learn something, we have to see the abstracted knowledge of the different disciplines that make up the world in our own lives before we can comprehend the way it fits into reality. On a subtler level, however, the point is that when we learn specialized knowledge, we tend to see it in a two-dimensional frame rather than in the context of the complexity of reality, and if we can work that specialized knowledge into something completely different, something that very much contrasts with the source of the initial knowledge, we can turn our two-dimensional mental map of reality into a three-dimensional one.
Now, let’s say that you are reading a different book, maybe a book of fiction, just around the same time you are reading the first book. You pick the first one up, let the words simmer in your mind, and then let go for a while. In the meantime, you pick up the second book. This book has nothing to do with politics. Maybe it’s a love story. Maybe it’s a fantasy novel. But in reading that first book about politics, you realized you had formed a concept of power in your mind that you could now see in the fictional novel even though, on the surface, that novel had nothing to do with power. Later on, maybe when you picked up the book about politics again, its talk about identity and tribalism and how they shape our hierarchies made far more sense when contrasted with the familial relationships and rivalries in the novel.
These are simplified examples, and they may not truly reflect the osmosis between the different disciplines of knowledge that a polymathic understanding of the world entails, as we tend to think of it, but the underlying mechanism that is at work is no different. By making our learning and our reading nonlinear, we give our knowledge more pathways of potential to explore as it makes sense of what it absorbs.
The rote memorization that we learn in schooling is the antithesis of this kind of jumping around. But it’s precisely this jumping around, from one book to another, from one context to another, from one discipline to another, that allows us to make interesting connections that fill the invisible gaps left open by the study of compartmentalized abstractions.
Our knowledge is tied into an interconnected network, and the way we read and the way we try to comprehend the world should reflect that. And when this network is properly integrated, there is a certain clarity that comes through, and it sees the whole in a way that none of the parts themselves can. The late author Terry Pratchet once captured this beautifully:
“People look down on stuff like geography and meteorology, and not only because they’re standing on one and being soaked by the other. They don’t look quite like real science. But geography is only physics slowed down and with a few trees stuck on it, and meteorology is full of excitingly fashionable chaos and complexity. And summer isn’t a time. It’s a place as well. Summer is a moving creature and likes to go south for the winter.”
The world is most interesting when we can see the complex patterns that connect its different parts to one another. And we can’t truly do that unless we look beyond the boundaries and the compartments of singular disciplines and singular ways of thinking about reality.
One of the best ways to do that is to add some chaos to how we read, or how we absorb knowledge, or how we learn in general. Rather than reading something in a linear fashion, as a curriculum with order and a rigid structure, we would be better off if we mixed and matched pieces of one source of knowledge, or one book, with another somewhere in between.
When I personally read, I’ll often be reading three to five books at the same time, jumping from one to another and then back. Sometimes, I’ll finish a book in a few hours. Other times, I’ll come back to it, slowly, over the course of months, while I squeeze in many others in between. The lack of hard logic to this process means that I open myself up to the serendipity of connection. And connection means that different ideas that wouldn’t otherwise interact can marinate together, helping make my knowledge dynamic.
People often think that there is something unique about thinking like a polymath, but the truth is that we all already do so intuitively. It’s just that we have slowly learned to hide the wisdom of that intuitive learning with the rigidity of the systems that make hard compartmentalizations.
Thinking is just as much shaped by how it is done as it is by why it is done and what it is done for. And how it is done can be influenced in important ways — by how we read, how we learn, and how we make novel connections.
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