When I think of where I’d like to be in five or ten years, in terms of my knowledge and my career, I don’t think of anything very specific. In fact, I’ve never really said to myself, “Above all else, I would like to become an expert on X or be a Y.” On the contrary, when I reflect on my life so far, I become aware of just how strongly I am guided by my desire to be “good enough”.
It’s a peculiar fact that we live in a world where so many work so hard to become specialized in ever narrower domains. This fact is often justified by the belief that our knowledge can only be expanded by a dedicated army working hard at the fringes. But while I think there’s some truth to this picture, particularly in certain domains, it’s incomplete. At the bottom, it’s perhaps a view of knowledge inspired by military invasion and conquest.
The second, often forgotten, means by which we expand our knowledge is synthesis. Paradigm shifts in areas of knowledge are not the product of minor changes at the outskirts of our knowledge, and therefore seem unlikely to be effected by hyper-specialists. Rather such “revolutions” consist in the refactoring of our knowledge, something that can only be performed by groups of people acquainted with necessary bits across several areas. People who are “good enough” in a variety of fields.
Scientists are not the only ones who can apply these lessons to their work. Virtually every domain of human inquiry has seen dramatic advancement over the past couple centuries. And as these domains advance, it’s becoming easier than ever to become “good enough” in many fields.
This last part may appear counterintuitive. If our knowledge has advanced over many years, how can it be that there is less to learn in order to become competent? Shouldn’t one have to learn more?
While the notion may be true enough for some fields, it seems to me that it’s completely false for most areas of inquiry. The growth in what we know doesn’t resemble the pouring of fluid into a bucket, but something more akin to completing a jigsaw puzzle. The vast majority of what we once believed is false, and no doubt much of what we “know” now is also false.
When we advance in our knowledge, we slash and burn the false knowledge that has accumulated, and leave open meadows that will one day become overrun with false knowledge yet again (though we hope there will also be some truth interspersed). This suggests that even the most brilliant minds are (and have always been) polluted with false knowledge. Naturally, all this occupies much of their efforts, and consumes much of their attention.
This seems a pessimistic take, but there’s reason to be optimistic. As human knowledge has progressed, we expect that the total quantity of false knowledge is steadily diminishing. And as such, there is somewhat less nonsense around to hamper one’s efforts.
As a consequence, being “good enough” today is quite different from what it was in the past. And the person who is “good enough” these days seems quite likely to have been regarded as a prodigy in the past.
It seems wasteful to not take advantage of our improved knowledge and our streamlined process of learning. With so much of the labor of knowledge performed for us, it seems one ought to spend twenty percent of their time to acquire eighty percent of the most essential knowledge in a field, and to do so in as many different fields as possible.
To become “good enough” across the board, to synthesize, and to discover.