Depth Before Breadth - Why You Should Learn One Thing at a Time

Many of us have a hard time limiting our effort to one field at a time - there’s so much interesting stuff out there and it’s more available than ever. All of this stuff can lure us into paying hidden costs when we try to learn everything all at once - costs that prevent us from getting the benefits breadth is supposed to bring. On the other hand, if you pursue depth, while you will only focus on one field at a time before moving onto the next, you will get much more out of each field, with a more robust breadth down the road. 

First off, I have to admit that I find this approach really really hard. I want to learn how to do everything and I want to learn it now. In high school, I tried to build a furnace in my backyard to make bronze. For two semesters in college, I took Latin, Greek, and Arabic simultaneously - oh, and after hours, one of my professors was giving a free class on Hittite. In the Army, I took up woodworking, leatherworking, mixed martial arts, and kayaking. In other words, I am a poster child for what you might call a "generalist” on a good day and a “dilettante” on a bad one. So, if you feel any objections as we go through this, believe me that I’m right there with you.

As you’ve probably guessed by now, I never got any good at those things, and I certainly didn’t master any of them. If you try to learn everything, you never get good at anything. If only there were some saying that could have steered me in the right direction, something about jacks and masters - hmmmm. I have finally started to figure out that a lot of interests without any depth is just a protracted form of ADD. Jumping to some new skill gives you a virtuous justification to drop something as soon as it gets hard - “oh, I’m not quitting, I’m just also doing this other thing.” The trouble is, you learn precisely by pushing through when you want to quit. Initial enthusiasm can jumpstart you in a new field, but if you only listen to excitement, you’ll quit as soon as you start to make any real progress. I know, because I’ve done it countless times.

Recently, I’ve become fascinated by an alternative to my serial dabbling that Josh Waitzkin recommends. We’ve talked about him here before. Josh stresses the importance of achieving real depth before you even try for breadth. He bases this on his own experience: he became a world champion chess player as a child, then moved on to world championships in Tai Chi Chuan Push Hands, and now co-runs a world class Jujitsu dojo with Marcelo Garcia. He didn’t learn all three things at once, instead he spent years obsessively focused on one at a time. He was able to take what he learned from each pursuit and apply it to his next one precisely because he took the time and effort to get that good. 

It gets even better, though: you can apply this lesson within your current field of study. Instead of learning a gajillion opening moves in Chess, learn the endgame. Rather than learning an entire Tai Chi sequence poorly, learn the first stance really well before moving on to the next. To get good at Jujitsu, find the one move that forces you to learn the right fundamentals. As Bruce Lee said, “I fear not the man who has practiced ten thousand kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick ten thousand times.” Even though all of the above examples are from sports, you can apply this technique elsewhere just as effectively. For example, if studying history, rather than reading a big picture survey, you might choose a single figure and learn about him deeply, coming to understand his context through his life. Or if you are studying a literary genre, instead of trying to read all of the books you can find from that genre, you could choose one work and dig in on plot points, themes, allusions, linguistic choices and so on. 

But why this insistence on depth? Well, for one thing, focusing on one topic will reduce the complexity while retaining important principles. Instead of worrying about punches and kicks and blocks all at once, you just learn all of the body mechanics to throw a punch in great detail. Having done this, you will internalize the core principles. Studying this way is highly organic - you branch out into adjacent areas to inform your narrow field of focus almost without realizing it. These natural connections form a strong latticework for real learning. Going so hard at one topic also ingrains this stuff deep down in your subconscious, which allows you to apply it intuitively rather than consciously. Without that internalization, the only insights you will have from between fields will be shallow - things like “gee, Chess is a bit like moving ancient armies on the field” or “huh, turns out every martial art with punches has kind of the same body mechanics."

Don’t get me wrong, I still value being well-rounded - but it turns out the best way to become well rounded is sequential mastery rather than simultaneous dabbling. Dabbling is certainly stimulating, but it won't produce any impressive insights. Now, do all of us need to monofocus to the intense degree that Mr. Waitzkin does? Probably not. You could take a Tim Ferriss approach and treat life as a series of intense two week experiments. Or take the Warren Buffet “Two Lists” approach to at least limit your long term projects. Or divide your work and learning into deep and shallow and make sure you only have one topic for deep work, but do what you want with shallow. You can always be more focused without being perfectly focused. 

I want to close with one more hidden bonus lesson from adopting a depth first approach - you don’t have to do everything right now. While a bit of memento mori can help you to focus on what’s most important, it can sometimes drive us to extremes. I personally find it hard to strike the right balance between “get your ass in gear, your time is your most precious resource!” and “you can let that go for now, it’ll still be there later.” I try to resolve that conflict by focusing not on quantity of time, but quality. It’s certainly not an original thought, but it helps. I remind myself I will never be able to do everything, so maximizing the number of things I do is a waste of time, whereas I can control how intensely I focus on what I’m doing right now - and the better the focus, the better my time. If I get hit by a bus tomorrow, it might mean I never get to study western martial arts like I’ve wanted to for years, but it can’t take away the quality of my time today.

As I said earlier, I know better than most how hard this advice can be to follow, but when I’ve forced myself to do so, it’s been well worth it. Dabbling is a sneaky form of laziness, and learning one subject at a time turns out to be the better path to what you were trying to accomplish by studying a lot of things. I’ve only just begun applying this concept seriously, soI’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences as we figure this out together.


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