“A worthy goal for a year is to learn enough about a subject so that you can’t believe how ignorant you were a year earlier.”
Kevin Kelly, 68 bits of unsolicited advice
A year from now seems impossibly distant and improbably close. Distant in that things are so uncertain and different, and close in that the days are flying by. At least it feels like that for me. So can we pursue a goal that takes us a long way towards expertise in such a time?
The power of a subject matter goal
I think Kelly’s quote zeros in on how to take on a goal, even in interesting times like these. The key lies in ‘learn enough about a subject’. Not a monetary goal or a success goal or a spiritual goal or even a physical goal. Those things are great but with all of them it is easy to get sidetracked or frustrated. Goals that are extremely challenging to accomplish are rewarding but they can also do damage if you feel you have failed.
Subject matter expertise, on the other hand, is quite reachable. And it can get you to those more material goals in ways you might not expect. It’s reachable because knowledge is extremely reachable to virtually anyone. We have the modern Library of Alexandria, that ancient collection of all human knowledge, in our hands. But too many of us skim its surface when, in fact, it is incredibly deep and getting deeper everyday.
Get the child’s eye view
There are plenty of books on goal setting and techniques for acquiring a goal. Diaries, planners, visualization, even hypnotism! Any of them can work. But when you are after subject matter expertise the path unfolds on its own. Prior to the internet, (yes, there was such a time), when you needed to get up to speed on a subject there was a simple technique to get started. Get a children’s non-fiction book on the subject.
The idea was that the writer had to break the subject down into its most basic components, the building blocks of the subject matter. As a researcher, your first task is knowing what questions to ask and which to skip. The kids book concept helped you define those. Now we have endless beginner guides on any subject. But use them the same way- to find out what you need to find out.
Get your hands dirty
So, how do you choose a target subject for your year project? This might be the biggest challenge. What is fairly complex and has things about it that you find mysterious, fascinating, or compelling even if you’re not sure why? That uncertainty probably indicates there’s enough there to keep you interested. But I think there is another test for a subject.
You have to get involved in it, hands-on from the beginning. If it’s coding, you have to code. If it’s gardening or cooking you have to do those things, preferably in an actual work setting. Why? For one, because sometimes people pursue something for a long time only to find they hate it when they start actually doing it. A fairly high percentage of teachers and lawyers, to name two pursuits, drop out after entering the working world. In spite of having made a huge commitment of time and money they find the actual work is not for them. You can’t get those things back. Volunteering in a legal aid clinic or a school might have shown them it was not their path.
The main point is that pursuing a subject means not only acquiring information knowledge, it is also critical to acquire physical knowledge, hands-on, brain engaged. This is where you are more likely to achieve the other half of Kevin’s challenge, realizing how ignorant you really were when you started! This in itself is very gratifying- to know you are not a newbie anymore or a dilettante.
“Dilettante: a person who cultivated an area of interest, such as the arts, without real commitment or knowledge.” Oxford Dictionary
The rewards are not the goals, they are the byproducts
I think you probably don’t want to be a dilettante! Life is too short for just dipping your toes in. Seriously though, going deep on a subject has rewards. You may meet a circle of people you would never have met, others on the same path. That’s a big one. You might leverage your experience into lucrative work or even a career path. You might find yourself in a place you would never have dreamed of being, doing something you could not imagine only a year earlier. Those are pretty big outcomes.
But even if you only develop a working knowledge of a subject, the value you gain is significant because you learned the process of going deep on a subject, going far below the surface that most people only see. That process is a skill that you can apply to anything you pursue.