Learn wide or learn deep? It’s a question that I struggle with frequently, and likely will wrestle with for quite a long time to come.
On the one hand, you have the idea that wider study helps, even in narrow fields.
On the other hand, you have thoughts like this one from the book “Thank You For Being Late“, where author Thomas Friedman essentially states the opposite:
“As the world speeds up, stocks of knowledge depreciate at a faster rate.”
So who is right? They both might be. I think the angle to consider is what was shared in the post I mentioned above about wider study from the book “Range”. Even those that study wide generally have a specific field of expertise, and keeping up with that niche is the challenge. How deep should you go there?
The leads into another problem, which is understanding when to try to learn something versus when you can let it go and know that Google will provide the answer when you need it. For example, I study geography a good bit because I know it’s a weak spot of mine, but is that a solid use of my time? It’s a tough question.
Ultimately, I think the smartest people tend to have the greatest number of mental models about a given subject. Charlie Munger, long-time business partner of Warren Buffett, put it this way:
Well, the first rule is that you can’t really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try and bang ’em back. If the facts don’t hang together on a latticework of theory, you don’t have them in a usable form. You’ve got to have models in your head.
Website development models
I can see this in myself a bit with website development. While my day-to-day development skills aren’t as sharp as they used to be, simply because I write very little code these days, my history of development allows me to see things from a wider perspective and still offer some value to our team in that area of work. Our developer can absolutely smoke me when it comes to writing code, but I can still contribute to tough problems because of the models I’ve built over the years.
Mental Models 101
With that in mind, expanding our mental models seems to be a wise direction to head, but it’s easier said than done. You can’t just pick up a book called “Mental Models 101” and learn them, but rather you’ll pick up them up along the way, between your reading and your work.
James Clear has a great essay about mental models, and this quote from him sums it up:
We should continuously upgrade and improve the quality of this picture. This means reading widely from the best books, studying the fundamentals of seemingly unrelated fields, and learning from people with wildly different life experiences.
Back to the idea of a “Mental Models 101” book, Clear has a list of the mental models that he’s found most beneficial, and I encourage you to check out and read through his full list here.