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Architect Matthew Frederick on the Three Levels of Knowing

Three Levels of Knowing

Architect Matthew Frederick draws our attention to the three levels of knowing in 101 Things Things I Learned in Architecture School.

Simplicity is the world view of the child or uninformed adult, fully engaged in his own experience and happily unaware of what lies beneath the surface of immediate reality.

Complexity characterizes the ordinary adult world view. It is characterized by an awareness of complex systems in nature and society but an inability to discern clarifying patterns and connections.

Informed Simplicity is an enlightened view of reality. It is founded on ability to discern or create clarifying patterns with complex mixtures. Pattern recognition is a crucial skill for an architect, who must create a highly ordered building amid many competing and frequently nebulous design considerations.

One approach to informed simplicity is a narrow specialization. By immersing yourself in one discipline or field, you can often begin to see things at an informed simplicity level. That is, you understand the variables at play, the probable results, what’s important and what’s not, etc.

Farnam Street takes another approach.

We’re trying to better understand how the world works so we can align ourselves with reality. We become the generalist, with a few big ideas from each discipline that we can combine to understand the forces at play.

However, we can only take you so far. Part of seeing things with informed simplicity means that you’ve done the work and chewed on the complexity yourself. If we gave you the answers – not that we have them – you’d never have them when you need them because you wouldn’t understand why they work, when they work and when they don’t work. You have to synthesize for yourself.

At the 2016 Daily Journal Meeting, Charlie Munger commented on this:

Saying you’re in favor of synthesis is like saying you’re in favor of reality. Synthesis is reality because we live in a world with multiple factors involved. Of course, you’ve got to have synthesis to understand the situation when two factors are intertwined. Of course, you want to be good at synthesis.

It’s easy to say you want to be good at synthesis. But it’s not what the reward system of the world pays for. They want extreme specialization. By the way, for most people extreme specialization is the way to succeed. Most people are way better off being a chiropodist than trying to understand a little bit of all the disciplines.