How Do You Build Your Knowledge?


Saturday, 10.42pm

Sheffield, U.K.

It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt. – Mark Twain

Over 30 years ago I had a class where we were taught how to draw bamboo stalks and leaves using brushes, ink and rice paper. It’s a simple set of strokes that has remained with me ever since.

Why is that? Is it because the actions involved were so pared down to the essentials, so succinct and perfect that they seared themselves into my memory? And why does other stuff take so much more time to understand or do?

Let’s go back to the point about the essentials of something. I’ve spent the last few months reading a lot of papers. Each paper has a lot of padding, stuff that introduces an idea, where it talks about other work, but somewhere in there is a sentence that tells you what the paper is all about – the thing that’s new – the thing that’s novel – the thing that didn’t exist before this work was done.

It like a golden nugget that’s waiting to be found. It’s an idea that, when you discover it, can be connected to other ideas to construct your own body of knowledge. Or more accurately, your graph of knowledge, the set of nodes and links that connects everything you know.

Knowledge then comes down to nodes and links. You have to create nodes and then lay down the links between them. The more links there are and the more you go over each link, the stronger certain connections become, the easier they are to retrieve, and the more important they are in your knowledge structure. If you want to learn or study or research an area you need a way to create nodes and links and a way to go over them again and again.

That’s where tools come in. Tools like notebooks and index cards, computer files and interconnected web pages. You need a way to collect information and connect it with other information. That’s hard to do for starters although the internet is pretty useful at helping with the task. The hard bit comes after – which is remembering how to find the information again.

Of course, it looks like we’ll soon reach a point where we won’t have to remember anything at all. It will all be a search or a query away. When that happens, however, the danger is that by not remembering anything we also know nothing.


Karthik Suresh

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