Most people do not understand anything deeply. They might say that they know the topic. But when you press on, they cannot provide a clear explanation for the case. Some said that they understood, but they were unable to explain the topic. The truth is if you can not explain a subject, you don’t understand it.
When you learn anything, go for depth. You should understand the meaning and connection of ideas, and going deep is way better than memorizing some isolated facts.
Set a higher standard for yourself. You can understand anything better than you currently do, and the following principles will help you understand any subject.
Master the basics
Mastering the basics is what separates the master from the novice. True experts deepen their mastery of the basics all the time.
In any subject, you can refine your skill and knowledge of the most fundamental idea. Learn to differentiate between concepts, facts and, procedures. Understand the concepts, remember the facts and do the procedures over and over again. Master simple cases or key examples inside and out. Once is never enough. Keep revisiting these fundamentals. Mastering the basics will help you find new insight. It looks like a waste of time, but your abilities will soar higher and faster by having a firm foundation.
Spend a little time to spot the fundamentals of the subject you are trying to master. And set to improve and renew your understanding of these fundamentals.
Ask: What do you know
Humans are easily fools. We gloss over a piece of information and believe we have understood it. We highlight our textbook. We read our book over and over again. We summarize. They have their places, but none of these activities improve our understanding.
To master any subject, you need to be active. Ask yourself: what do you know? Try to retrieve from your memory the most fundamental ideas of a subject. Passively going through books, lessons, or courses will not improve your comprehension.
Richard Feynman devised a learning technique called Feynman Technique. Use this technique whenever you try to learn. First, brings out a paper and write down what you know about the subject with as many details. The goal is to find a gap in your understanding. If you found any hole, then go back to the source material to understand it better. Repeat this exercise regularly as you learn.
Say it as you see it
The human mind is full of cognitive biases and fallacies. And these biases and errors affect the way you “see” a concept. You must learn to identify and let go of assumptions you bring as you actively see and understand the subject.
To better understand the subject, mindfully acknowledge what you actually see rather than guess at what you think you are supposed to see. Saying what you see forces you to become aware of what is there and what is not there.
Be honest and accurate about what you know and don’t know. This forces you to identify and fill gaps in your understanding, leading you to true learning and growth.
Sweat on the small stuff
All worthy subjects have a substantial size and complexity. To be able to master a complex topic, you need to break it down into parts. Find one small aspect and solve that part. Understand the solution inside and out. Consider this small piece from different points of view with great details. Choose a subproblem that is small enough so that you can give your most full attention.
Then do it for other parts. See how these parts connect to other components and understand how those parts connect and affect each other.
Find the essential
When trying to solve a problem that is complicated and multifaceted, try to isolate the essential ingredients. Ignore all distracting features to find the essential core. Analyze this core issue gain a deeper understanding.
Hard questions are often obscured by history, context, and details. What you need to do is to get to the central themes. Once you pare down a complex issue to its essentials, the essentials are much clearer and easier to understand.
For instance, people have been wondering how to fly. Initially, learning from birds, we thought the flapping wings were essential. But it turns out that this is not true. The critical bit is the gentle curve of the top of the wing—the air traveling faster over the top of the curve creates lift. The aviation pioneers have to ignore the flapping wings and find out about the curve—the essence of the problem of flying.
See from the other side
All perceptions, judgments, and beliefs are inferences. When we look at any object in the real world, we believe we are simply registering what is in the world. But in fact, our perception of the world relies on tacit knowledge and mental processes we are unaware of. This recognition should prompt humility about how certain you are about your judgment.
People believe a lot of misconceptions. For instance, people believe fortune cookies are Chinese cuisine, and microwaves cook food from the inside out. And for a long time, people thought that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones.
You need to be clear about the foundations of your opinions. What everybody believes is not always true. So constantly ask yourself, “How do I know?”
When you hold an opinion about a particular issue, try to accept other views. Think through its consequences. Now switch back your view and think through its consequences. See where this leads. Do not be judgmental.
Build a mental structure
Whenever you learn new material, extract the key ideas, and construct a coherent mental model using these key ideas.
There are huge advantages to having a good mental model. The mental model helps us to reason, to identify conditions, and to deduce logical implications. It helps us explain unknown phenomena and to relate knowledge and understanding.
The human brain is for connecting ideas, not random facts. To gain a deeper understanding, look into your prior knowledge and link ideas to form a mental structure. Knowledge builds on prior knowledge.
As a side note, people who have an excellent mental structure are more successful in transferring their learning to unfamiliar situations. Transferring is the ultimate goal of learning, to apply what we have learned from a domain and use it in other areas.
These seven principles will improve your ability to understand many subjects.
Understanding deeply means mastering the fundamental concepts, facts, and procedures. This will create a solid foundation for further learning. Actively asking yourself and seeing what is actually there without prejudice lets you develop a less biased understanding. Looking at the essential creates the skeleton that supports your understanding. Seeing it from the other side will help you see what is missing and help you to identify the limits of your knowledge. Build a mental structure to connect and compare ideas.