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Knowledge Makes Everything Simpler

Operating a screw is pretty simple as John Maeda points out in The Laws of Simplicity:

Just mate the grooves atop the screw’s head to the appropriate tip-slotted or Phillips-of a screwdriver. What happens next is not as simple, as you may have noted while observing a child or a woefully sheltered adult turning the screwdriver in the wrong direction.

My children remember this rule through a mnemonic taught by my spouse, “righty tighty, lefty loosy.” Personally I use the analogy of a clock, and map the clockwise motion of the hands to the positive penetration curve of the screw. Both methods are subject to a second layer of knowledge: knowing right versus left, or knowing what direction the hands of a clock turn. Thus operating a screw is not as simple as it appears. And it’s such an apparently simple object!

So while the screw is a simple design, you need to know which way to turn it. Knowledge makes everything simpler. This is true for any object, no matter how difficult. The problem with taking time to learn a task is that you often feel you are wasting time, a violation of the third Law. We are well aware of the dive-in-head-first approach-“I don’t need the instructions, let me just do it.” But in fact this method often takes longer than following the directions in the manual.

Maeda goes on to present a few of his design-informed approaches to “good learning.”

Use Your Brain

The doctrine of “the carrot or the stick” points to a choice between positive and negative motivation-a reward versus a punishment. I disagree when teachers give their students candy and other perks for correct answers, but I also disagree with a colleague at MIT who throws erasers at students that fall asleep during class.

Instead, my ten years of data as a professor show that giving students a seemingly insurmountable challenge is the best motivator to learn. It is said that a massive amount of homework is a kind of reward for the average over-achieving MIT student. But after recently experiencing student life myself, I’ve lost my masochistic attitude in favor of a holistic approach:

BASICS are the beginning.
REPEAT yourself often.
AVOID creating desperation.
INSPIRE with examples.
NEVER forget to repeat yourself.

The first step in conveying the BASICS is to assume the position of the first-time learner. As the expert, playing this role is not impossible, but it is best ceded to a focus group or any other gathering of external participants. Observing what fails to make sense to the non-expert, and then following that trail successively to the very end of the knowledge chain is the critical path to success. Gathering these truths is worthwhile but can be time consuming or else done poorly. … the easiest way to learn the basics is to teach the basics yourself.

Maeda relates a lecture he attended to illustrate the point of simplicity.

A few years ago, I visited the master of Swiss typographic design, Wolfgang Weingart, in Maine to give a lecture for his then regular summer course. I marveled at Weingart’s ability to give the exact same introductory lecture each year. I thought to myself, “Doesn’t he get bored?” Saying the same thing over and over had no value in my mind, and I honestly began to think less of the Master. Yet it was upon maybe the third visit that I realized how although Weingart was saying the exact same thing, he was saying it simpler each time he said it. Through focusing on the basics of basics, he was able to reduce everything that he knew to the concentrated essence of what he wished to convey. His unique example rekindled my excitement for teaching.

We think that REPEATing ourselves is simple or even embarrassing. One of the biggest things I’ve had to overcome with public speaking was my fear of repeating myself. I used to catch myself saying the same thing and I’d just assume that everyone heard it the first time.

AVOID-ing desperation is something to target when learning is concerned.

We all want to “wow” people from the beginning with the newest bells and whistles in an amazing new product, but sometimes “wow” can become “woah” and you need an aspirin to cope with the anxiety of the overwhelming aspects of the new. I dread upgrading software on my computer because I know how eager the new program will be to tell me its latest and most wondrous features. The strategy of “shock and awe” can discourage the shocked-and-awed as I learned by experiencing the vast chasm of knowledge between teacher and learner as an MBA student. I also became aware of how professors can unknowingly become insensitive in a university setting. A gentle, inspired start is the best way to draw students, or even a new customer, into the immersive process of learning.

“INSPIRATION,” Maeda writes, “is the ultimate catalyst for learning: internal motivation trumps external reward.” The belief in something greater than ourselves (be it a person or mission) fuels our self-belief and adds direction.

And finally. NEVER forget to repeat yourself.

Metaphors

We’ve spoken before about the power of metaphors and how they shape our thoughts. While metaphors are great, if you surprise with a metaphor you create a positive emergent effect. Or, put another way, if you can surprise along an unexpected positive dimension, you create the possibility for a non-linear response.

Metaphors are useful platforms for transferring a large body of existing knowledge from one context to another with minimal, often imperceptible, effort on the part of the person crossing the conceptual bridge. But metaphors are only deeply engaging if they SURPRISE along some unexpected, positive dimension.

The Real Reward

The real reward is learning. We learned to walk largely though trial and error. Not because daddy offered us $5. The reward was our own growth, something we’ve forgotten as we get older. We could just as easily learn today but we want immediate and usually financial reward.

Difficult tasks seem easier when they are “need to know” rather than “nice to know.” A course in history, mathematics, or chemistry is nice to know for a teenager, but completing driver’s education satisfies a fundamental need for autonomy. In the beginning of life we strive for independence, and at the end of life it is the same. At the core of the best rewards is this fundamental desire for freedom in thinking, living, and being. I’ve learned that the most successful product designs, whether simple, complex, rational, illogical, domestic, international, technophilic, or technophobic, are the ones that connect deeply to the greater context of learning and life.

The Laws of Simplicity is a great book that you should read.