Learning, An Idiot’s Guide – Part 1: Variety

In our previous post, we defined what learning is and what this site aims to achieve.  Although the aphorismJack of all trades, master of none” is used mostly as a pejorative, being knowledgeable in a variety of topics is quite useful in becoming a “master of one” trade: learning.  With our agreed upon definition of learning,  we can now discuss variety.  The idea that variety in learning can be helpful is fairly intuitive.  I believe there are at least 6 reasons why this is so.


No, not this Jack


1.  Maybe most obviously, variety keeps people from becoming bored

At times, learning becomes stale like a loaf of bread if one is constantly trying to learn about the same thing(s).  Break the monotonous cycle and introduce something else interesting, even if it’s unrelated!  There’s no need to feel as though you need to complete a task before another unless it’s cumulative.  Don’t pigeonhole yourself into one discipline just because you started there.  You can always come back.  This method will stimulate your passions once again, and even if you still tire through the original topic, you will at least find yourself learning something else.

2.  Sometimes you just need a break

Yes, sometimes you simply need to get away from a particular subject matter.  Physical exercise is a great way to let the mind rest and let the body take over for a bit, (yes you can still learn while working out).  This sometimes gets you through a tired phase.  You may come back energized enough to power through in order to attain whatever goal of knowledge you have.  Other times, you’re just exhausted.  I find that simply relaxing, or sometimes playing with my children will do the trick.  This is different for everyone, but sometimes you just need to quit a particular subject matter for awhile.

3.  Variety broadens your knowledge

Moving from one subject matter to another, or sometimes even juggling many at a time, can be quite effective.  We’re not talking about multi-tasking, which I believe is one of the dumbest things you can do and will snuff out any attempt at real knowledge acquisition.  No, what I’m suggesting is that having many irons in the fire at once in a general sense is a method that I’ve found works well for me.  This immediately solves the boredom and exhaustion issue that can plague people when trying to learn new things.  I jump from one thing to the next, constantly, albeit sometimes slowly, progressing forward and getting better at each thing I spend time on.

Although my knowledge in one specific area might not be increasing at warp speed, my knowledge in aggregate is maybe progressing faster than if I’d spent dedicated time on one subject until completion – because of issues mentioned above, i.e., boredom, mental exhaustion, etc.  Variety helps acquire aggregate knowledge, while specification generally trains one to “expert” in one field or another.

4.  Broadening your knowledge base leads to mental models

The idea of mental models that I know of come directly from Charlie Munger.  He is the investing “sidekick” of Warren Buffett.  He is a billionaire, and is credited with transitioning Buffett to a more Phil Fisher “quality seeking” investment style from his earlier Benjamin Graham “cigar butt” approach.  Buffett would have made a ton of money either way, but regardless Munger is a pretty fascinating guy.

His idea of mental models strikes me as quite useful.  He speaks of learning a bunch of really important disciplines and working them together like latticework.  He’s the kind of guy who prizes being “an inch deep and a mile wide”, (okay maybe a couple feet deep and a mile wide).  But the idea is that you don’t need to be top of your field in any one thing.  If you are, great.  If you have a passion for one thing, that’s terrific.  Maybe you’ll be so good you can change that discipline, or even change the world!  But Munger recognizes, as I do, that most people just don’t have that.  They are “snowboarding through life“.  They don’t know what to do, what they’re passionate about.  Munger’s response: “that’s okay”.

The idea here is that when you start learning the “big ideas” as Munger calls them – from these disciplines – your perspective opens up, things become easier to understand across disciplines, and you are able to make connections you wouldn’t be able to make if you specialized.  So, instead of trying to perfect one discipline, learn ’em all!  Munger says it’s not that difficult if you like learning, your life will be better for it, and the world will be better for having you.

5. Broadening your knowledge also leads to world view fitting

Worldviews are something a little different.  They typically come before the learning.  In other words, there are worldviews out there that you “fit” knowledge into as you learn it.  It’s a way of interpreting what you learn by a particular framework. This has its merits as some worldviews are better than others.  There is one worldview I know of that is consistent and rational, is head and shoulders above the rest, and lends itself to this type of learning, but we’ll save that for later in the guide.

P.S.  Everyone, although they may not know it, has a worldview.  Some are more activist with them than others, and some people don’t care to be consistent with them.  Nevertheless, they influence how we learn and how we frame the information we seek.

6.  Knowledge seems to compound

Taking another idea from one of the billionaires mentioned above, Warren Buffett says that knowledge compounds, like interest.  The concept is that in the early going, interest is somewhat nominal, but as time goes on it becomes a bigger and bigger part of the value being gained because it’s compounding with itself, (the idea that money begets money).  A simple illustration, but it makes tons of sense.  You know this intuitively from your mortgage if you have one, except the principal (pun recognized but not intended) is reversed.  In your mortgage, the interest is a bigger part of the equation up front until you eat away all of it with payments.

Back to learning,  Buffett is saying that as you get older and learn/read more, the knowledge you have gained and are gaining starts to beget new knowledge that you wouldn’t have acquired if you hadn’t put in the time early on.  This seems to ring true.   The views of both Buffett and Munger definitely correlate and work together very well to put a man in position to know many things about many different disciplines.  These men are learning machines and spend most of their waking hours reading, so they know how to compound knowledge.  It’s nothing that a poor man can’t do.  In fact it’s been referenced in at least one movie.  What is it?  Get a library card.  If you have a little money, spend it on books.  Happy learning.