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How to think about knowledge


I'm Julian. I try to write the best guide on every topic I'm interested in. So far, I have:
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Being knowledgeable

By breaking knowledge into its components, we can uncover how Nobel Laureates and other such geniuses are smarter than us.

How to visualize knowledge

Please don't be put off by the graph. It's just there to make me look smart.

Using circles and lines, we can represent how our brains manipulate knowledge. Consider how, for any topic, we know two things: its facts and how its facts interrelate:

To be clear, I'm not claiming this is how knowledge works. Rather, this is my mental model for easily reasoning about knowledge and its acquisition.

You need a critical mass of blue circles to become competent on a subject. But, having many blue circles is not what makes you brilliant on a subject — it's how many long green lines you have.

Most people's knowledge on most topics consists of a small amount of blue circles with short green lines. This is the low-energy form of knowledge acquisition that doesn't require deep understanding — just memorization. 

When you pose a complex question to someone like this who lacks long green lines, their answers will be rote and their predictive power will be weak. 

Mental models are the tools you use to connect multiple blue lines into green ones. They direct your attention to the critical circles so you can follow efficient pathways. (Mental models are a part of critical thinking, which I wrote a whole guide on.)

If all this makes sense, the question becomes, How do we grow our circles and lines?

Building our graph

People who've performed extensive research on a topic have many blue circles for it. Others who've just read an introductory book will have fewer.

When someone shares the blue circles you lack, they're sharing unit knowledge with you. If they then explain how those blue circles connect to one another, they're sharing relational knowledge with you. This is more useful than just having new circles.

When someone says, "That's a great question!," what they're commending you for is asking a question that begs an answer in the form of relational knowledge.

As for having others share green lines with you, unfortunately there's only so many they can impart. For complex topics, concepts quickly become too interconnected for you to memorize all the relevant green lines in their entirety. 

Instead, you have to hone your pattern recognition and critical thinking skills to assess relationships on the fly. A good first step is the guide I wrote.

Note that this graph-building process equally applies to every topic in the world — from literature to video games: A literary genius is not necessarily smarter than a video game genius. In fact, let's use our knowledge model to demystify such haughty topics.

Acquiring blue circles

Topics stigmatized as "elite" or "haughty" — like literature or politics — contain esoteric knowledge:

♖ Esoteric (adjective): "Knowledge intended for or likely to be understood by only a small number of people with specialized prior knowledge or interest." 

We commonly mistake people who have esoteric knowledge as necessarily intelligent.

In reality, these people simply took the time to acquire blue circles we hadn't. All blue circles are equally capable of being put to memory by anyone. It's only the relational blue and green lines that reflect one's "intelligence." 

Consider, if you deeply questioned a literary expert you know, could they connect the many dots among the topic to respond insightfully? Or could they only regurgitate facts? Wisdom is what lies between these two extremes.

Your instinct to classify someone with extensive esoteric domain expertise as intelligent is just the result of an unequal distribution of knowledge: Whereas some people scour the depths of the Internet absorbing the esoteric things they're interested in, most of us only learn about what bubbles up in our newsfeed.

But, if topics are equally easy to learn, why can't everyone a quantum physicist? And why do so many people find esoteric topics overwhelming? 

As for the feasibility of mastering the hard sciences (e.g. physics, math, chemistry): These are topics that are disproportionately dependant on green line knowledge. In order to advance in these fields, you need to be able to navigate a lot of relationships in your head at once. This requires raw intelligence — not just hard work.

(We'll touch more on raw intelligence in the next section.)

As for why people find esoteric topics overwhelming, I believe it's because 1) most parents don't excite their kids about the intellectual arts and 2) these topics are divorced from pop culture and are therefore "drier" to study. 

As a result, these topics suffer from fewer quality educational materials for lay people. 

In other words, putting aside the hard sciences, what someone happens to be knowledgeable about is mostly a reflection of (1) their self-confidence in understanding the material thanks to their upbringing and (2) their interests. If your parents exposed you to literature as a child, literature will feel innately approachable.

But let's get back to the topic of raw intelligence to discuss how it relates to the knowledge graph. Specifically, it has reveals itself at the edges.

The graph's edges

A topic's blue circles go on forever. We discover new ones through experimentation and deduction. Below, the red circle represents a newly discovered unit of knowledge:

Before we explain the red circle, consider this question, What do we call someone whose green lines are numerous?

Insightful. They can connect many blue circles to they see the bigger picture.

And so what we call someone whose red circles are plentiful? Brilliant. They follow their green lines to the limits of the graph so they can form brand new ideas. 

In other words, brilliance is the result of experimenting to uncover non-obvious relational or unit knowledge that has yet to be discovered by others. 

Red knowledge is therefore what advances society:

The greater your IQ, the greater your pattern recognition abilities are, and more you can exhaust green lines to discover red through intellectual prowess.

Similarly, the greater your hustle, the more you can exhaust blue circles to discover red through experimental brute force.

In other words, there are two ways to derive insights: brute force and prowess. Everyone can play a role in pushing science and the arts forward.

If you want to be one of those people, start by lengthening your green lines.

Resources to lengthen your green lines

Here are just a few fantastic resources to help lengthen your green lines:

These starting points will link you to other fantastic resources. Crawl the web and learn.

Next steps

Isn't it cool to finally "get" a topic you thought was too abstract to wrap your head around? My critical thinking guide does the same thing, but for intelligence as a whole.

This post is also available in Japanese.

I write a new piece every few weeks if you'd like to be given a heads up:

— Julian Shapiro

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I'm Julian. I try to write the best guide on every topic I'm interested in. So far, I have:
Build Muscle Startup Growth

Julian Shapiro headshot

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