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Staying Curious; You Should Be T-Shaped

There’s so much stuff to know and learn about. How do you choose where to start – or where to end?

You know how you read a book about, say, evolutionary psychology, and find it really super-interesting, and then three months later someone asks you about it and you can’t remember a bloody thing? OK, glad it’s not just me. In fact, it’s most of us. Scientists who study the “forgetting curve” have found that it is steepest in the 24 hours after we have consumed information.

One way to mitigate this problem, and to speed up and maximise your learning, is to triangulate. In social sciences, triangulation means researching a question using several different methodologies at once. When I really want to learn about something I try and do so using different kinds of media all at once, or at least in quick succession. So if I want to learn about AI, say, I’ll read a book, read an interview, watch a video, do a Coursera, watch a TED talk, read an article…and, crucially, do it all in the same month. You’ll learn a lot more when you cluster like this because all these different inputs start colliding in your mind, merging and multiplying, and strengthening the neural networks that constitute your memories.

The bigger point here is that you’ll retain more memories of new information if you already know something about the subject. The most important thing to know about learning is this: knowledge is compound. For some context, read this fantastic post on the magic of compounding in nature, finance and branding. The same logic applies to knowledge.

Your brain is not like a hard drive; it does not slow down the more data it stores. Quite the opposite: it speeds up. Taking on board information is one thing, but to understand it – to turn it into knowledge - the brain needs to integrate it, and it finds it much easier to integrate new information when it can attach it to existing neural networks, or maps of knowledge. The bigger, varied and more detailed those already-existing maps, the more quickly new information is transformed into insight and new ideas. In short, the more you know, the easier it is to know more, and better you get at thinking and creativity.

For a very simple illustration of my point, give yourself five seconds to memorise the following strings of symbols:

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You can’t do it. Of course you can’t – who the hell can memorise six strings of symbols in five seconds?

OK now memorise this:


It’s exactly the same problem, but you probably didn’t even need one second this time. The difference is knowledge. For the second example you brought to bear to the problem all your maps of prior knowledge, learned over years: maps of how they letters fit together into words, maps of how sentences work, and maps of popular music. It all comes together (no Beatles pun intended) to turn an impossible memory task into one that gets done in a flash.

Over time, the knowledge-rich get richer and the knowledge-poor get poorer. This why early learning is such a big deal for children; once a kid gets a head-start on knowledge over another, it’s incredibly hard for the knowledge-poor kid to catch up, even when she puts in the same effort as the kid with a cognitive trust fund.

This dynamic makes a powerful argument for generalising – learning broadly – because when you have a wide base of knowledge about the world you are going to pick up new information on any new topic much more quickly than someone with a narrow base. You will not only seem smarter when any new topic comes up in conversation – you will actually be smarter.

But it’s also an argument for specialisation. When you start getting really deep into a domain of knowledge, your learning curve becomes exponential. So when it comes to the old question about whether you should specialise or generalise, I say, do both. Be T-shaped. The vertical line of the T makes you valuable in the marketplace for talent, as few people will bother to learn as much as you do about your speciality. The horizontal line – learning, if only a little, about other domains, other disciplines – make you a quick learner and a better collaborator.

It doesn’t have to be just one thing, of course. But it’s important sink a few drills deeply into the earth even as you roam wide and far around the world of knowledge. As the eighteenth century dandy Horace Walpole put it, “The whole secret of life is to be interested in one thing profoundly and a thousand things well.”

One important aspect of fitness is diet, which is why we’re giving you a look at the information diets of senior planners. This week we have a brilliant example of a rich and varied diet from one our industry’s strategic stars, Raquel Chicourel of M&C Saatchi.

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