Long before I started on this path — before I knew this was a path to consider approaching — I liked the word ‘holistic.’ I like what it seems to imply to me: that specialist knowledge, however valuable, is never enough. It’s more important to consider the whole of a situation.

It’s big in medicine: the idea that you have to view the person as more than a bag of chemicals and chemical interactions in order to treat what ails them. I’ve heard it in educational contexts: the idea that putting facts in front of people is not where education ends (or, really, begins).

I love phrases like “I’m taking a holistic approach to self-improvement” because that one word makes it clear that what I think of as self-improvement is probably not the things that a high school guidance counselor would see as self-improvement.

The power of breadth
For a long time, I’ve had a bit of a mantra, or motto: everything is the same, everything is different. Learning new things, it’s always helped me to scaffold upon what I already know (tarot assigns different properties to each number, much like pythagoras) so that I build the connections in my mind required to actually retain the information. I almost always find it helpful to ask myself questions like “how is programming like running?” as I learn new things, because the answers I get are almost always useful.

On the other hand, everything is different. I mean, the question “how is programming (what I want to learn) like running (which I already enjoy quite a bit)” might suggest the importance of regular practice, of stamina, teh value of each individual step towards a goal. And all of those things are good to know, but that doesn’t mean that, after preparing for a half-marathon, that I can program a computer. Programming is worth knowing on it’s own. (Programming, by the way, is more like running in the woods: it rewards attention to detail as one mis-step and you can twist your ankle.)

The more you learn, is what I’m trying to suggest, the more you can learn. Or, so it seems to me.

Further, the more you learn, the more you have respect for the complexity of each individual subject. Specialization, I think, presents us with the danger that you can learn all there is to know about something. I don’t think that’s true. Considering how the programmer of a piece of software might master the code, but not the application of the software (you don’t need to be a doctor to write a program that could track prescriptions) and that it’s been shown that the design of the interface affects the way that we use the software and, further, the way we use the software affects the ways we think, the habits we form and the conclusion we jump to, and it’s clear that — in the case of anything involving prescriptions — it’s not even clear which habits are the right ones to encourage. . . it doesn’t seem to me that all of humanity can know everything to is to know about a single subject.

What I’m trying to get at is something like the thing we often read about our brain: that there are more potential connections between neurons in our brain than there are atoms in the universe. I believe there are at least as many connections between facts, values and other forces.

Nothing wrong with specialization
I’m not tearing down specialization. It’s obviously valuable, lots of progress (not even in quotes, because quite a bit of it I’m thankful for) is to be credited to specialization.

I feel, however, that we’re living in a time in which specialization is becoming the norm, and I’m for also valuing a more holistic approach to the process of learning.


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