If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change. – Wayne Dyer
When you start reading you find that everything you read points to a whole list of other things that you should really also read. There’s a lot of stuff out there. Once upon a time, not that long ago, you could probably learn all there was to know about a topic. Now, what happens is you start with a search and try to winnow down the thousands of results to a manageable number – a few hundred or so. You read those and then you “snowball”, follow up on the references in those papers and hopefully when you’re done you know something about the area you’re reading about.
But you can’t be sure.
When you’re early in the reading process, as I am, this seems daunting. What if you spend months, even years following ideas that lead nowhere, ones that have no real value. How do you avoid doing that?
Well, you could start by being sensible. Reading the things that are in good journals, the material that is cited by others. Safe work, the good stuff – material that is judged to be best in class.
Unfortunately, that approach also leads to putting what’s there right now on a pedestal – taking it as unquestioned truth or really as it should be. The difficulty is that it could just be the way things are because people with power and influence thought that way. What you need to do is get away from the stuff that’s treated as seminal, as gospel – go to the edges where the interesting and revolutionary stuff is happening – maybe that’s where the real knowledge happens to be.
But of course sometimes things are on the fringes because they’re looney ideas – because they’re wrong. If they were right they’d be in the centre… maybe – perhaps there’s a conspiracy to keep them out, except that in real life most people aren’t skillful enough to run a real conspiracy without everything leaking out.
So we’re stuck – do we go with the known centre or do we go with the revolutionary edge?
Or is there an alternative. Everything we do is framed in some way – there’s a mental wall, one that we may not recognise, that keeps us thinking the way we do. We may not be able to pull it down completely or leave it entirely behind but we can try and see it for what it is and perhaps look to see what else is there close by – something that Steven Johnson calls “the adjacent possible.”
The other thing we can do is try and stick to the things we know – ground ourselves in the real world. For example, it’s easy to get lost in theory about concepts and situations that you don’t really know anything about. For example, I followed a reference about dysfunctional group dynamics – something I don’t really know much about. The thing is – I don’t really want to know much about that other than being able to recognise when something is going wrong. When that happens I don’t want to change the group – I want to get out of that situation and go and find a group that does want to do something and is interested in working together.
So perhaps that’s a strategy for dealing with the enormous amount of content on everything that’s out there. Start with what you know and learn about what’s adjacent. Grow your knowledge outwards, pushing your mental walls and expanding the area they cover. You never know – you might learn something that changes your life.