I had a belief that you have to keep learning more and more about one topic to get better at it. Many people have the same assumption.
But increasing your knowledge isn’t always easy. As you learn more about a subject, you’ll have to strive harder to scale up. The higher your expertise, the harder it gets to notch it up further.
Instead, a smarter way to grow your knowledge is to include diversity. We’ll discuss how you can start thinking and working on your related areas to improve at what you’re doing.
The growth of knowledge
You might expect knowledge to grow steadily with effort and time. If I plot the graph of such expectation, it would look linear as shown below.
You assume you can continue growing your expertise at a linear rate by applying the same method repeatedly.
In reality, here is how the graph looks like.
As per the law of diminishing returns, you get lesser results for the same efforts with time.
An employee’s growth from his first day at work follows the same model. Consider yourself as a fresh graduate who just finished studies and started as an individual contributor in a programming role at an IT firm.
In your first year, the organization expects you to learn the basics and start assisting a team with minor tasks. For the second year, they assign more projects to you and demand better results. A few years later, depending on your interests, you’d have to show the qualities of a manager too. After a decade or two, if you have to continue growing, you’d have to scale up your leadership skills and learn new facets of the business.
If you continue learning the same concepts you learned during your first year at the job, you’ll stagnate at some point in time. You’ll have to find different methods and paths to continue on the trajectory to growth.
How knowledge works
Your brain works as an interconnected web. When you learn about one subject it does limit itself to one corner of the brain. Millions of neurons come together to make any action possible. The same applies to knowledge, expertise, or any other skill.
Your learnings from one area can apply to another. A great example is Elon Musk who has built multi-billion dollar businesses in unrelated domains like software, automobiles, and aerospace. He speaks about growing your expertise by focusing on the fundamentals first before going deeper into the field.
It is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e. the trunk and big branches before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang onto.Elon Musk
Though Musk has not spoken about transferring knowledge from one field to another, he has applied the strong fundamentals from one business segment to another.
Charlie Munger, the billionaire partner of Warren Buffet has applied his wide array of knowledge from different subjects across each other. Investing is definitely his core area of expertise. But, take a look at his recommended reading list.
If you look deeper, you’ll notice a pattern. Most of those books fall under anthropology(the study of culture based on evolution/history), physics(thermodynamics), economics, decision making, and biographies.
Isn’t it surprising that one of the geniuses of investment has hardly recommended any books on the subject? Are you more astonished to find physics among his suggestions?
If you have followed Munger, you’ll know why he chose those topics. He learned about physics to understand the causal effect of actions. He sharpened his decision-making skills to avoid mistakes with his investment choices. Anthropology helped him understand the root cause behind bad decisions and nip them off the bud. The importance of economics for his expertise is a no brainer.
I have tried applying the same approach and noticed a difference. Sure, I haven’t set up large enterprises like Musk nor achieved the wisdom of Munger. But, I have realized how cross-domain knowledge adds value.
For example, I started reading books about writing good fiction even though my content is completely non-fiction. After reading the first book, I hardly noticed a difference. Once I finished the second book, I found an indirect connection. After studying the facets of writing better fiction, I now understand how to relate the knowledge to blogging and self-improvement.
Right now, I am learning more about economics and statistics. Building businesses is one of my interests, so I trust that those fields will broaden my thoughts and knowledge. I am yet to wrap my head around the topics and understand the correlation, but I am hoping I will figure that out over time.
Important pointers of cross domain knowledge
At first, you’ll find the practice ineffective. That’s because when you begin your journey into learning a new area, you’re only scratching the surface.
You cannot connect two wires underground without going deep underneath, can you? Likewise, you’ll figure out a way to infuse concepts from different areas after you know enough about each.
Requires careful selection
You cannot pick any random area and expect that to improve your expertise. The additional knowledge you gain must come from a related field.
If you grab a topic like you pick a number from a raffle draw, you’ll waste tons of time. Know why you’re targeting a new area and how you believe that will play into your expertise. Sometimes, your idea can lead to a dead-end and that’s a part of learning.
How to implement cross domain knowledge into your schedule
To begin, stop viewing knowledge like a ladder where you climb up step by step. Consider it as a battlefield. You cannot win a war even if you’re the best swordsman in the world. You have to understand the terrain, your enemy, and apply the right tactics along with your swordsmanship.
So let’s try to put that into practice.
Pull out a sheet of paper and write down your core area at the center. For me, that is writing non-fiction.
Next, think of all different ideas and topics which will help you improve at your core area.
For me, some of those areas are:
- Lessons from well know writers
- Networking with other bloggers
- Unique perspectives
- Reading more books
- Understanding cognitive biases
The reason I am networking is to build relationships, learn from fellow writers, and expand my reach. I explore cognitive biases to ensure my writing is not influenced by my mindset alone.
Likewise, think of strong reasons to explore a new area for yourself.
Once you have your list, start thinking of methods to grow your knowledge in a few or all those topics. You don’t need to develop mastery over each of them. A fair understanding of fundamentals does the trick.
In my case, for networking, I am trying to implement tactics from How to be a power connector by Judy Robinett. For cognitive biases, I look for articles and read books along with observing the behavior of myself and those around me.
Finally, you’ll have to wait patiently for the results to show up. It took me over a year to see the cognitive biases in my decisions, thoughts, and words. You may need a shorter or longer time to develop expertise in your related fields.
Here are some example areas for specific professions
- Learning about startups to understand how others run businesses
- Knowledge about anthropology to understand why people act the way they do
- The origin of different cultures to understand why different people like different cuisines
- The thought process behind how scientists mix different ingredients
- The concepts of body language
- The science behind voice and its influence on people
The examples above are the thoughts I had on top of my head for a reference. They aren’t the apt topics for the expertise because my knowledge of those business domains is only subtle. You’ll know your field better than I do, so you must come up with the right related areas yourself.
The intention isn’t to turn into a jack of all trades and master of none. You should assess and handpick topics because they will require an investment of your time, energy, and money.
One of the most valuable assets you can build in life is expertise. That’s the reason skilled people bounce back even after going failure or bankruptcy.
Growing knowledge and putting it into effect consistently creates a bigger compound effect than even money does. Unfortunately, because the results are not tangible, most people give up halfway.
Instead, aim to take a small step each day to grow in a related area without making it exhausting for your schedule or energy. With time, your efforts will compound one way or the other.
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.