Are You Learning A New Domain? Visit Its Zoo

If you are learning about a new domain, learn about its individual entities well before jumping into its ecosystem.

C was the first programming language I learned on my own. I was lucky to learn from the creator himself; I learned from ‘The C Programming language’ by Brian W. Kernighan and Dennis M. Ritchie. They introduce the most powerful software language in just five lines.

printf("hello, world\n");

Then they go on to explain each line.

In simple words they go on to teach you everything about C. When you finished the book, you will be a master of the language.

But …

Is that sufficient enough to create a real-world application?

What about data-structures, APIs, Version control, Deployment methods?

They don’t make the assumption that the reader of the book is going to create a real-world application for the public. They took an elephant and introduce you to every aspect of the elephant; if you are interested in knowing how the elephant survives in a jungle you have to go further.

I didn’t abstract this into a learning framework then; but, I used this systematic framework to learn every new domain.

When I learned English (I’m a non-native), I learned few words and little grammar without worrying about real-world situation like speaking in a meeting or influencing through communication. When I started to converse in English, which was in college1, whatever little I said brought laughter from others. But I separated out what I had to learn and followed the model of the C book – I learned vocabulary, essential grammar, writing and finally speaking. Now, I’m fairly confident of any form of communication and can even steer conversation towards objectives that I set.

I followed this approach to learn photography, project management and retail investing.

Although I was using this approach extensively, it was happening unconsciously. I never formulated a theory for this approach. That was until I read Donella Meadows’, Thinking in Systems2. In a chapter titled, ‘A Brief Visit to the Systems Zoo,’ she says,

It gives you an idea of the large variety of systems that exist in the world, but it is far from a complete representation of that variety. It groups the animals by family - monkeys here, bears there - so you can observe the characteristic behaviors of monkeys, as opposed to bears. But, like a zoo, this collection is too neat. …Ecosystems come later.

A light bulb went off! I was unknowingly practicing ‘zoo theory of learning’ - group family of things together, study them carefully and when you are confident of the individual pieces, go explore the ecosystem. Donella is brilliant!

  1. Before that, I never conversed in English. I could recite few memorized sentences but never converse. In fact, for a long time in school, I would learn my English lessons in Tamil, my mother-tongue, then will reconstruct the sentences during written exams. I was good at it. Thank god, there were no oral exams then! ↩︎

  2. Disclaimer: This is a Amazon associates link. If you purchase through this link, I get a commission. ↩︎

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