I believe that everything in life has transferable knowledge — useful insights and teachings that can be applied to other (often completely unrelated) things. This post explores that idea, and takes you through three principles that I find incredibly helpful in my own daily life.
My approach to transferable knowledge can be summed up like this: General principles, specific applications. In other words, find the lesson within one task or activity, generalise it, and apply it to as many other things as I can.
This approach helps me generate “exponential learning” — whereby a lesson from one thing helps me get better at n more things. If I do this with each task, or with each new skill I learn, I will generate new lessons for every previously learned task throughout life. These lessons build onto each other, which means that I’m improving old skills with every new skill I learn, while also building an arsenal of principles for any new problem I tackle.
By overlaying one principle onto many things, I find that problems in daily life get easier to solve. For example, a principle I generalise from writing, which also helps me in building good habits, might happen to be really easy and valuable to overlay onto having a heartfelt conversation with a friend. Exponential, generative, transferable.
The three principles I find have helped me in many different scenarios are:
- Lead with curiosity
- Draft as fast as possible
- Function > Form
Here is each one in more detail.
#1 Lead with curiosity
Where I learned this from: Journalism/Interviewing
The core idea:
This principle is essentially about asking questions and being curious. I wrote about curiosity in a previous blog post, and this quote really stands out to me: “Questions are the means by which we explore ourselves, each other, and the world.” That’s from Shane Parrish. This links into the evolutionary argument that, as infants, curiosity is the only tool we have for learning about the world around us. Curiosity is an innate part of our development. It’s always there.
In interviewing, I learned that one of the most important things is to make sure I’m asking the right questions, and listening to enquire, not to respond. This is because the quality of their answer is completely dependent on the quality of my question. If I want a good answer from them, they need a good question from me.
Also, a good question tends to have an infinite number of uses; a good answer, on the other hand, normally only has a few relevant applications before it expires.
Leading with curiosity is about making curiosity your first response to anything. It means replying with a question, instead of an opinion; meeting uncertainty with enquiry, instead of anxiety; and treating ‘strangeness’ with intrigue, instead of distance.
Where it helps me in daily life:
1. Finding my blindspots:
- In a meeting, watching the news, or reading an article: When I feel unsure, or when something sounds complicated and confusing, asking as many questions as I can helps me subdue my anxiety, and gives me the opportunity to engage more usefully. Sometimes, I need to take a few minutes to formulate my questions, but it helps me walk away from meetings with better insight, and less overwhelm, and get more out of the content I watch, read, or listen to.
- When I start something new (like a blog post, a habit, or a project): A blank canvas can be exciting, but it can also be scary. Knowing where to start is hard, so I start with curiosity, always. It gives me assumptions to test, and it gives me a place to start — and starting is all I need in order to find the next step. Shelby Foote captured this idea really nicely: “I can’t begin to tell you the things I discovered while I was looking for something else.”
- Being OK with being wrong: Think about building a bridge, for example. WIthout curiosity, you go with your opinion that wood bridges are better or more exciting to build, but later discover that the bridge collapsed; with curiosity, however, you figure out that the groundwater will cause the wood foundations to rot, and so you build the bridge with stone. You weren’t wrong, you simply didn’t ask the right question.
2. Connecting with other people:
- In my personal relationships: When it comes to relationships, curiosity is my secret ‘weapon’. In conflict, it stimulates understanding; in comfort, it nurtures selfless empathy. Leading with curiosity helps me fight the urges I get to state my own opinion in the face of tension, or to immediately offer advice when all someone needs is a compassionate ear who cares enough to ask more, and seek deeper.
- In my relationships with strangers: Meeting someone new, or needing to make small-talk with a stranger at a friend’s party isn’t everyone’s strength. I consider myself generally extroverted, but I still have my days where I don’t feel well-prepared to chat. Curiosity, however, does all the work for me: “What do you do? Why that? How is it going? Where do you see yourself in a few years’ time? Why not start now? What makes you apprehensive to do that?” Through asking, and then listening, you uncover moments of deep connection with even strangers. This is the power of curiosity.
#2 Draft as fast as possible
Where I learned this from: Writing/sketching
The core idea:
I struggle with a little devil called perfectionism. On the surface, caring a lot about something and wanting it to be perfect is a good thing; but there’s a destructive side to perfectionism. Perfectionism can easily turn into a barrier to success.
I first heard about this idea of drafting as fast as possible from some of the prolific writers I admire — Neil Gaiman, James Clear, Neil Strauss… They all share a similar philosophy: When you write a first draft of anything, do it as fast as you possibly can, and just get it down onto paper. Don’t edit, don’t think too hard, don’t ponder, don’t muse… Just write.
This doesn’t mean rush; it just means keep going and don’t stop to fiddle with the details. In other words: Work from the outside in. Get the gist done, and then polish later. You don’t build a house by starting with the wallpaper and the lamp shades.
Where it helps me in daily life:
1. Stimulating creative ‘flow’:
- When I’m sketching out an idea for a drawing or design: I would often get stuck on one detail, one skew line, one weird-looking finger on a hand, or one colour, and it would completely derail my momentum. By drafting with speed in mind, I worry about those details later. I treat it as if I’m optimising my time for the task at hand: I’m putting 1 hour aside now for rough and ugly line work, and only then putting aside 1 hour to go over it again and do the detail.
- When I’m writing an article: I write a lot, and having this principle in my toolkit is critical for me to be able to do my job and still enjoy writing in my free time. I accept that the first draft will be ugly, and it will be bad, it will be too long, and it will be messy… but that is exactly what it needs to be. Later on, I’ll polish it, but at that moment in time my goal is to write without stopping — and, all of a sudden, I don’t worry about the details anymore, and don’t get slowed down by losing focus.
- When I come up with an idea for a new thing: Another great creative benefit to drafting quickly is when I map out an idea for a new thing. Sometimes, it’s an app, other times, it’s a Google sheet for my exercise routine. By following the ‘draft as fast as possible’ principle, I force myself to keep it simple and just get the skeleton idea down first. I use paper, I use a whiteboard, I use a text editor on my computer… anything that’s easy to use and in reach so that I can just get the main points down, and work on tidying it up later.
2. Starting something from scratch:
- With things that need ‘activation energy’ or motivation: Starting something new takes energy, and spending too much time at the draft stage of anything wastes precious motivation. By getting the scariest part of the process done — ie. the first draft — without looking back, I don’t waste energy. I can come back and fine tune things later, but if you edit while I work, I’m far more likely to lose interest. And ye, it’s going to be uglier than the final product — so what? (as a perfectionist, this hurts — but it’s a muscle I really need to work on, and this principle helps immensely with that).
Pro tip! If forgetting “nice ideas” worries you, capture the details you’d otherwise fiddle with in a ‘note-to-self’ for later reference. Write them down as you think of them (in a notebook book, in a comment on your doc, in a task or your Trello or Asana, or in a note on your computer) and then push them aside until later. That way, you don’t need to worry about forgetting things, but you don’t get too distracted from finishing a first draft of whatever you’re working on.
#3 Function > Form
Where I learned this from: Coding
The core idea:
I’ve heard this idea before, but it’s something I really came face-to-face with when I started learning how to code. I’m a creative at heart, and how things look matter a lot to me. In coding, I had to learn that how things look don’t matter as much as I’d like them to, at least when you’re starting out with a new project.
When building an app, for example, if you don’t have the basic journey or the basic idea of what you want this thing to do, in detail, with all the little moving parts, then the colour of the button or the stroke means nothing. Function first, then form. Ask “Does this work?” before you ask “Does this look nice?”
This principle helps me let go of this attachment to perfection. It distills the world around me into functionality and utility, before I worry about its form and aesthetic. It helps me see the ‘value’ before the ‘view’.
Where it helps me in daily life:
1. Brainstorming and mapping out new ideas:
- When starting a new project: My temptation when starting a new project is to make the headings nice, add formatting to the bullets, pick emojis I want to use, or find colour pencils and highlighters… But this is all ‘fluff’. By focussing on function, I push all of that aside and ask things like: “What do I want this to achieve? What is my goal? What would winning mean? What would failing look like?” I tend to force myself to stick to simple tools — pencil and paper, whiteboard and one marker, or apps that have zero formatting (like simple text editors) — and only worry about the details that affect whether this thing works, and not how this thing looks.
2. Making things that are more useful, or more thoughtful:
- For my personal operating systems: I track habits, I have a meal planner, I try optimise my nutrition, I iterate on my life principles and values a lot, I keep a list of books to read and movies to watch… And I do all of these in pretty “undesigned” ways and places. They’re in notes, and in bullet lists, and in text editors on my phone and laptop. By focussing on their function more-so than their form, I’ve found that they are way more thoughtful, far more useful, and I don’t feel so attached to how they look as I would if I spent time “designing” them. This principle not only helps me work faster, but it also helps me work more honestly as well, in some ways.
- When doing things for other people: Instead of worrying about the wrapping paper, the expensive card, or the presentation of a cake (for example), this principle helps me dig deeper when I’m doing things for other people. What do I want to convey? What is the smallest thing I can do to convey that to this person? This principle has helped me scribble a poem on a piece of paper, or just give someone a phone-call instead of worry so much about doing these big, and ‘picture-perfect’ displays. More important is the function of your service or your gift — and if it does that well, then people generally don’t mind if it’s a homemade birthday card or a cake that didn’t rise in the oven.