We Should Learn Outside Our Fields of Expertise

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Last Updated on September 26, 2022

I recently read a book entitled Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein. Upon reading its chapters, I can’t help but agree with his points that there are many advantages of being a generalist over being a specialist in the broader sense and applications.

Though I don’t have anything against those who go deep into their fields to specialize, it just so happened that generalists have a bad reputation of being called “Jack-of-all-trades, master of none.”

In which generalists, like myself, would often add: “Jack-of-all-trades master of none, but oftentimes better than being master of one.”

Learn from unrelated fields

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In school, we often differentiate our subjects into two major categories, the major subjects, and the minor subjects.

We would then focus all our time and attention on the majors because we think minor subjects are just added to the curriculum to increase our tuition fees.

However, like what I wrote in a previous blog post, our minor subjects have an essential role in our holistic development since they offer opportunities for growth that are not readily available in our other subjects.

Now that we’re older, we start to realize that many of the things that seem to be unrelated can still be applied in other areas of our personal and professional lives.

Studying topics that are not directly related to our fields of specialty can trigger interests and provide a wider perspective. With more information available today than at any time in the world, we need to capitalize on it and learn more.

Another lesson from immersing in other fields of interest is the opportunity to gain knowledge and apply lateral thinking to ‘think outside the box.’

Thinking outside the box

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The phrase “think outside the box” is a cliche. It suggests that you should think of new creative solutions for existing problems, but the question remains, how would you think outside the box if you’re always inside it?

To get a bird’s eye view perspective of a problem and come up with novel solutions is to know similar situations that may not be directly related to the current problem but has the potential for lateral thinking applications.

Outside-the-box thinking is also not the typical input-output solution that we’re taught in school. It is far deeper and broader if we would learn from people from seemingly unrelated fields.

Transfer of learning

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Transfer of learning is one of my favorite learning process concepts. Basically, it deconstructs an existing concept into its fundamental principles before reconstructing and applying them to new areas.

Years ago, I learned it from a blog post on how Elon Musk uses the learning transfer to understand different concepts to solve existing problems from the ideas he discovered from various media, especially the books he read throughout his lifetime.

A good example of transfer of learning is the mathematical concept of the Golden Ratio, best approximated by the Fibonacci Sequence. Several fields, like art and photography, architecture, music, and even stock market trading employ the golden ratio.

Applying 80/20 Rule in Learning

As a generalist, one learning technique is the 80/20 Rule, commonly known as the “Pareto Principle.” It states that 80% of the outcomes are from 20% of the inputs.

So, this can be applied by learning about the larger, fundamental concepts from topics you wish to learn. Doing so can produce a positive outcome.

I think we can relate this principle to what Elon Musk said in a Reddit AMA.

One bit of advice: it is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, ie the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.

Elon Musk 

The 20% can be the trunks and big branches by looking at knowledge using the semantic tree analogy.

Putting it all together

For generalists, we are not aiming for mastery. What we are more concerned about is how to learn the most out of our limited time.

We live in a time where information is generated more in a day than several years combined. So, we need to learn how to filter through them and select which ideas to learn.

The three concepts of lateral thinking, transfer of learning, and 80/20 principle in learning can be very helpful to learn more out of a topic faster.

Happy learning! God Bless!

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