6 Tips for Learning Complex Topics
Learning is a fundamental facet of our job as knowledge workers: let’s tame it!
Human learning starts at birth […] and continues until death as a consequence of ongoing interactions between people and their environment.
For each human being, learning and breathing come and go together. That’s a truth that many people often allow themselves to forget. It’s a pity.
Yet, there’s a specific subset of human beings for whom that truth is a job, too. They are the knowledge workers.
I’m a knowledge worker, and what follows is my technique for learning. I hope you’ll find it helpful!
#1 Clarify the purpose
Each knowledge endeavor aims to solve a problem. So, before diving deep into the details of a subject matter, you need an awareness of its purpose.
That’s a psychological need, too. Learning is hard work: a strong motivation is necessary to avoid giving up when complex ideas seem a mess of meaningless words! The purpose is that motivation.
The purpose of the subject matter you’re learning is your North Star.
#2 Detect up to 3 key concepts
Learning is digesting a subject matter by isolating concepts based on their level of abstraction.
On the other hand, managing numerous ideas is challenging.
I’ve found it helpful to identify no more than three concepts at the highest level of description of the subject matter.
Three may seem a too small amount of ideas to cover complex topics, but it’s not. At the proper level of abstraction, it’s always possible to identify a few key concepts. For example, one may be tip #1: the purpose. The other ones may be the two most relevant assumptions the subject matter relies on.
What’s crucial is that you can glance at the entire subject matter in a few sentences: the three key concepts.
#3 Tame the language
Each subject matter has its specific language, which is made up of particular words and ways of putting them together.
There’s an aesthetic in using words, and subject matters come with it.
Moreover, language implies a way of reasoning because, as you know, without words, there’s no reasoning. It would be best if you were open to resonating with the language of the subject matter that you have to learn.
Easy to say, but… how? Use it! Make the most relevant sentences become your words. Write them down, and speak with them. That will help to tame the language to learn.
Visualizing concepts reaches two goals:
- Synthesis: In a graphical representation, removing redundant information is easy because you see what’s relevant and what’s useless.
- Internal coherence: In particular, with mind maps and ontologies, visualization is a graphical form of reasoning. If you draw something incoherent, the chain of connections among concepts highlights the mistake, leading to contradictions.
Moreover, a visual representation can fit on one page and makes it possible to tame an entire subject matter at a glance. And that’s learning: having in mind all at once.
Mealt down the topic’s complexity by describing a simplified version of it.
Simplifying is rooted in visualization (#4) and is the next step beyond taming the language (#3): it is the way to explain the subject matter essence to a child.
Simplicity takes work to reach. On the other hand, simplicity is the measure of learning success.
There’s no unique recipe to get to simplicity, but it’s always a balance between removing non-essential ideas and staying with the core of the subject matter.
The ideas that compose a complex topic have different weights: many of them are ancillary as they refine concepts. Discover and remove the ancillary ideas, and you’ll get enough simplicity to learn the topic.
Don’t get me wrong: ancillary ideas are essential, too. Yet, they are not in the foreground during learning.
Last but not least, write down each step of your learning journey.
Techniques #1 to #5 are only practical with writing — no matter how: paper, digital, or stone.
Learning is the effort to internalize intellectual paths invented by others. You know you own a topic when you can bring knowledge out of yourself: that’s writing.
Write your knowledge down, and you’ll discover what’s missing to learn. Or you’ll find that you learned the topic, eventually!
Learning is a journey that starts with a vague idea of the destination and ends when you eventually get a clear picture.
Learning is the effort to internalize intellectual paths invented by others.
For knowledge workers, school never ends. Being prepared to acquire and elaborate on new knowledge every day is paramount.
Moreover, learning to learn is a collaborative endeavor: what you’ve just read is my recipe; what’s yours? Let’s improve learning together!
If you enjoyed my article and found it helpful, please consider joining Medium through my referral link: you’ll support my writing and get into a sea of knowledge. No extra costs!