What do we need to know to start making a difference?

10 October 2020
10 Oct 2020

My Dorm Room Fund friend John Forbes asked me an interesting question today:

What’s requisite to knowing enough to go understand/(some cases) work with (close to) anything, well, at a white paper level?

In other words, what are the foundational kinds of knowledge that, if we have it, can accelerate the way we learn everything else?

Our conversation went many places, but I thought I’d extract an idea I landed on that seemed particularly elegant.

I think domain-specific knowledge falls into one of two categories:

  1. Vocabulary knowledge, which is what’s required to understand experts and conversations in the field, and
  2. What I’ll call “ontological” knowledge, which is understanding and knowledge of the facts and patterns that are the subjects of research in a field.

I think the prerequisite to understanding and making an impact in a field is vocabulary knowledge – you need to be able to understand and speak the language of the field’s experts and communicators. Once you have that, I think ontological knowledge can come from participating in the conversation of advancing the field forward in practice, while trying to attack problems you find interesting. I think med school / law school / internships are all about teaching people the vocabulary knowledge of their respective fields, and the real discovery and learning takes place in the profession.

I also think gaining ontological knowledge is much easier and less error-prone when done in the field, while actually doing the work, instead of from textbooks and curricula. Pure math has a notorious amount of vocabulary knowledge – almost learning a different language. By comparison, the vocabulary knowledge of “tech” and startups / venture capital is as much about the culture and network as about the actual words.

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