Broaden your range to improve your thinking

Expose yourself to fields that are different from yours. You’ll find surprising new ways of thinking to add to your repertoire.

I was revisiting my recent posts, and I noticed that the theme of “sharpening your thinking” appeared several times.

A way to improve one’s mental prowess is to accumulate an arsenal of mental models and lessons learned. David Chapman shares sound advice on how to do that in his essay How To Think Real Good:

Learn from fields very different from your own. They each have ways of thinking that can be useful at surprising times. Just learning to think like an anthropologist, a psychologist, and a philosopher will beneficially stretch your mind.

Branching out into different areas always delivers something new to ponder upon. Our brains are pattern-matching machines. Dip your toes in and out of different topics, and you’ll start seeing promising connections.

Software developers know the power of cross-pollination. For example, the Redux library brought immutable state management and unidirectional data flow concepts from the Elm programming language into the more popular React web application framework. Apple’s programming language Swift cherry-picked useful, proven concepts such as option type and structure concurrency from other languages to give iOS developers a safer, more robust coding experience.

The whole field of software development is itself a downstream effect of one brilliant instance of cross-pollination, Claude Shannon’s insight of connecting two seemingly unrelated topics, Boolean algebra and circuit design, in his legendary master thesis A symbolic analysis of relay and switching circuits.

Here are two tactics to find new areas to explore. Small hops and leap of faith.

The small hops approach consists of moving through adjacent topics until you eventually find yourself in an area different from your expertise. An excellent way to hop into new territory is to pick up your favorite book and walk down its notes until you find something that tickles your curiosity.

Taking a leap of faith means jumping right into a new subject. I recommend picking up a random title from a used book store – there’s something romantic about exploring via books that have already had a journey of their own – or at the local library.

As David Epstein argues in his excellent book Range, our rapidly changing world demands “conceptual reasoning skills that can connect new ideas and work across contexts. […] The more constrained and repetitive a challenge, the more likely it will be automated, while great rewards will accrue to those who can take conceptual knowledge from one problem or domain and apply it in an entirely new one.”

Exposure to a wide range of subjects is more than a pastime for the intellectually curious. It’s a strategy for improving your thinking and, with some luck, discovering novel insights.

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