DRMacIver's Notebook

A library of recurring ideas

A library of recurring ideas

(This is a quick piece that I am writing because I realised I'm not going to finish the long piece I was writing today)

A thing I notice that I do more than many other people is that I just have a lot of ideas in my head that I pattern match to new situations.

Like e.g.

These seem to come up time and time again. I'm only mentioning these ones because they're all things that have come up recently, I'm sure there are dozens if not hundreds of others.

There are also plenty I've come up with too. e.g. Skirting the edge of disaster and the Fractal of Lies have both come up recently.

I don't really have any good evidence that I do this more than other people, but it sure feels like it. I think I even do it more than other people who have some of the same ideas - a lot more people know about the market for lemons than go "Oh, a market for lemons" whenever they encounter the pattern in the wild. I talk about "Things that you can't unsee" but really I might just mean "Things I can't unsee".

Part of my evidence that I do this to an unusual degree is that I am unusually good at explaining things (at least, I think so, and other people seem to agree), and I think having this sort of library of recurring ideas is part of that: When presented with something to explain, I probably have a ready tool to hand to reach for to take it apart and reveal interesting things about it (Intellectual DIY of course being another of my recurring ideas).

Another recurring idea that doesn't have a catchy name or something I can refer to, but which I think about a lot, is that anything someone can do is a skill that almost everyone can learn to do better (this doesn't deny talent, although I'm a low-key talent sceptic in a number of ways, I just have a lot of faith in people's ability to learn skills given the right environment). So if this is something I do to an unusual degree, how can people learn to do it better?

Back in Thinking through the implications I suggested a couple of things that might work:

  • When learning by doing, write down interesting things you learned so you remember them later explicitly.
  • When you learn new things, try to come up with at least one application of them outside the context you’re learning them in.
  • When you encounter a new problem, see if anything you learned recently applies to it.
  • When you re-encounter a problem that you previously believed was hard or impossible, spend at least 5 minutes thinking about why it is hard or impossible and if anything you’ve learned since then changes that.

I think this is all good advice, but discounts the explanatory aspect of it. Perhaps the real thing to do is to just use them a lot - building up a conceptual framework in the way I discuss in Why do we need new terminology? by writing things that they enable you to write.

In general, maybe writing is just the best way into this. Perhaps the reason I'm unusually good at this skill really is just writing? Or at least, writing in the way I write. In which case, perhaps the key to developing this skill is contained in:

By writing about things as we encounter them, and connecting them to our library of ideas, we train ourselves to recognise these patterns as they occur.