Yesterday, I wrote about enthusiastic amateurs, a model for how I think about the trade-off between expertise and being a generalist. The median person is unlikely to become an expert, and pursuing expertise can be very costly, so perhaps there is a better path for the median person to take. This path is, roughly, to explore more, learn broadly, and rely on the interconnections between ideas to add value.
If that discussion is at all salient for you, a natural next question is how one ought best cultivate the characteristics of an enthusiastic amateur.
With the very big caveat that I’m still figuring this out myself, here are a few ways that seem to work well for expanding my interests and developing the sorts of knowledge that are additive rather than distracting:
- Optimise for breadth. This might seem like trivial advice given the definition of an enthusiastic amateur, but it’s amazing how much more breadth can be gained by asking at a higher-than-normal rate “does this decision expose me in a meaningful way to more interesting stuff”. Follow blogs on subjects you know nothing about. Listen to lots of podcasts from lots of experts. Get used to clicking around Wikipedia aimlessly.
- Avoid optimising for depth. I think optimising for depth is the default pathway, in many important ways, for lots of mostly contingent cultural reasons. If you want to be an enthusiastic amateur, you should resist the urge to optimise for depth. A lot of the stuff you do will also involve developing depth in a given field, but you shouldn’t be afraid to forgo depth in service of breadth, and then let depth develop naturally across a range of subjects, rather than by sacrificing breadth on the altar of depth.
- Cultivate enthusiastic amateur friends. Enthusiastic amateurs usually have a richer and more idiosyncratic answer to “how can you do X better?”, generally because they actually end up answering a different question: “how do I think about X differently?”. They’re also very likely to recommend books and other media sources that might stray from expert’s canon. (Interintellect is a good place to start! So is Twitter!)
- Cultivate expert friends too, but recognise their expertise might skew their answer away from breadth. Expert friends can teach you things you will never learn otherwise. They’re extremely good at nudging you away from dead-ends in their fields. It can also be a valuable way to get personalised feedback on your projects that sit in their domains. But experts are also more likely to rank you and your work against the norms and common knowledge in their field, which can lead you to develop the same sorts of blind spots that they do. It’s difficult to see the water you swim in.
- Quit more. Quit early, quit often. Discipline is overrated. Projects that languish can be discarded. You shouldn’t forget that the sunk cost fallacy is still a fallacy, even when you’re labouring under it. If you’re at all like me, you should give yourself more permission to halt, reverse, rework or otherwise abandon some interests and projects as others begin to take their place. You’ll float back to things as and when you’re in the mood.
- Use Anki and take notes. Breadth means you need to build more branches on the knowledge tree. You’ve got fewer coat-hooks, as it were, upon which to hang new facts. Popular science television, for instance, even the not-so-good stuff, is usually packed full of non-obvious observations and the distilled wisdom of experts. Even more so for the really good stuff; even more so still for books. People consume this content passively, and so don’t retain it. The trick is to consume actively.
- Talk more. Connections between ideas often rely on pragmatics – how things are said, and in what context – rather than the actual semantic content of the connection. So talking about your latest subject of interest with smart people in a variety of different contexts can help you see beyond the standard narrative and see links that others might not.
- Write more. This is the sort of trite advice you hear often, but it can’t be repeated enough: so much of the process of writing just is thinking, and forcing yourself to write helps you retain what you’re learning and distill an argument or theory or model to its essential components.
- Think about thinking. How can you better distill an idea to its essence? How can you better think about the content you’re consuming, and what you do with it once it’s consumed? How can you curate your inputs in a way that leans towards high-quality breadth?
None of these methods are foolproof, but they point towards an enjoyable and rich intellectual lifestyle that doesn’t involve the sort of high-risk turmoil attached to pursuing expertise.
Being an enthusiastic amateur is like giving up for smart people.