Connecting the dots

In Everything Is A Remix, Kirby Ferguson brilliantly shows how all important innovations and seemingly original ideas are always built on existing work by someone else. (If you haven’t seen the videos, you should!) Learning to walk before you can run, if you may. He also points out that different people building on the same knowledge might reach the same conclusion independent of each other. Building new stuff is only possible when you’ve first built old stuff.

When you go deeper into it, you realize it applies to a number of things. In Made to Stick, brothers Heath study the details that make some ideas memorable, while others are easily forgotten. The main problem, they say, is the Curse Of Knowledge:

The person sharing the idea has all sorts of insider information that others don’t, so they have already framed the problem and understand its relevance. A single example illustrates the essence of the problem: One study tested a “tapper and listeners” game: They asked a person to tap out the rhythm of a song and have another recognize it - the listener nearly always failed to identify the song. What happened, of course, is that the tapper sings the song in their head and thus thinks he has the right rhythm, but the person hearing the taps cannot hear the song inside the others head and therefore has no idea of what the taps mean. 

We lived for a year in Berlin, Germany. Although I had studied German for a number of years in school, speaking it with the natives was a completely different thing. I sometimes would get frustrated not knowing the most basic of phrases, although I knew for certain this was just the kind of stuff I had repeated for years in my German classes. Back then, I simply didn’t have the ground, experiences or motivations to attach the new knowledge onto. Had I had a reason to learn those phrases back then, they would have stood a chance of sticking.

So - whether you’re learning or helping others learn, you must first establish a common ground: something to connect the dots between what is already known and what is to be learned. It doesn’t matter if the connection seems silly, as long as it’s memorable. I vaguely remember a Finnish TV show where the competitor had a week or so to memorize the 200 members of the Finnish Parliament, together with the political party they belong to. She would then associate each of the rooms in her home with a certain political party, and stick the names of politicians on the walls of those rooms. Eventually she would learn to associate the rooms in her house with the political parties and the faces in them. When the moment of truth arrived, she could correctly connect the politicians to their relevant parties and won a family holiday, a nice sum of cash and whatnot.

Any similar experiences, or special techniques that have helped you to learn or discover new stuff? I would love to know.

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