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‘I don’t understand.’

One of the reasons I started writing again was to learn about stuff I knew nothing about. So many times I haven’t asked the stupid question because I didn’t want to sound stupid.

Malcolm Gladwell‘s dad had this thing when he would talk to someone who knew way more about a subject than he did. He wouldn’t pretend to know what they were talking about, or to just push on without stopping to ask a simple question. He’d say, ‘I don’t understand.’, again and again, until he did. He was doing it for himself, because he honestly didn’t, but once, a person he was speaking to actually realised he was also doing it for him. To clearly explain the basics of something requires you to think clearly about it. Whether he meant it or not, he was helping them understand it better themselves.

Often we’re afraid to ask, ‘What actually is X?’, or ‘How does X actually work?’, or ‘Which actually came first, the chicken or the X?’. But so many times it’s also something that so many other people are wondering.

There’s a bunch of stuff and people I know nothing about. Stars, for one thing.

My wife is fascinated by the stars, the cosmos and all the space between. So when we’re both gazing up at night, and I’m thinking something dumb like ‘wow… so pretty…’, I always assumed she’s looking at the same stars thinking something like ‘Yep, that star to the left is clearly composed of (a bunch of chemical elements I’ve never heard of), ‘It’s SO obvious that the Milky Way is 67,000 light years away from that constellation over there’, or ‘Black Hole×Supernova÷Hydrogen³=√6.47611′

But a few weeks ago, I asked anyway: ‘What actually are stars made of?’

And she couldn’t give me a clear answer. I don’t doubt that she knows way more about stars than I do, but often we don’t ask questions because we think ‘I should know this’.

Just as important as understanding that you don’t understand, is understanding how you learn things. Like everyone, I’ve looked up so much stuff on the internet, trying to learn about it, but 5 minutes later I couldn’t tell you one fact about it.

Reading books works better for me. Everyone learns differently, but I learn visually, by picturing what I’m reading happening right in front of me. And without distraction. There is no rabbit hole of Youtube videos, ‘What’s going on in the NBA I wonder?’ or ‘Time to check my email again’ you can fall down by sitting down with nothing but a book in front of you.

And just as important when learning something you know nothing about… Start from the absolute bottom. Zero. Crawling, not walking. If you don’t know what gas actually is, like me, start lower. Start with a beginner’s book. Start with a kids book. Start with stick figure drawings done by your little 8-year-old cousin.

Tim Urban of Wait But Why says:

I’ve heard people compare knowledge of a topic to a tree. If you don’t fully get it, it’s like a tree in your head with no trunk—and without a trunk, when you learn something new about the topic—a new branch or leaf of the tree—there’s nothing for it to hang onto, so it just falls away.

So before taking on the massive topic of Tesla and why Tesla cars matter, he starts with the absolute basics. That is, ‘What is energy?’

I don’t know. Do you?

Saying ‘I don’t know’ is the first step to knowing. The second step is learning in the way that works best for you.

Another thing that works well for me are deadlines. So, starting this minute, I have exactly one week, without using the internet, to learn what stars actually are.