Learning How to Learn

Finding connections between disciplines fascinates me, like the similarities between work habits of hackers and painters. The benefits of extracurricular research in unrelated fields aren’t always immediately realized, but this gain in perspective can lead to many long-term benefits. Lateral thinking and creativity depend on the ability to adapt processes and metaphors to something else. Regarding my ideal university experience, I advocate that engineering majors invest substantial time in studying humanities.

Analytical and procedural thinking are requisites for any successful computer scientist, but the truly innovative are able to call on a wide breadth of knowledge when needed. This can have surprising results. John Holland took the idea of gene replication and adapted it into a well-known algorithm. Alan Kay, trained as a biologist, took the idea of cellular processes as the basis for object-oriented programming: encapsulation serving as an analogue to the cell wall, and signaling between the cells representing something akin to message passing. Understanding the incentives of your customer is largely about being able to empathize with them. As Google has demonstrated, this can’t always be solved by refining an algorithm or A/B testing. This realization has led to technology companies emphasizing interaction design, which has its roots in psychology. Systems thinking, now commonly applied in business development, was largely inspired by the work of Donella Meadows, an environmental scientist who wrote 1972’s the The Limits of Growth, a study of how exponential forces interact with finite natural resources. (Another one of her books, Thinking in Systems, remains a favorite read of mine as a beginner’s guide to systems thinking.)

Breadth in thinking, to me, means reading widely, critically, and then deeply in fields one finds interesting. This requires “learning how to learn,” which happens to be one of the tenants of an ideal liberal arts education. Unfortunately, this isn’t a focus of many engineering schools. More engineers and technologists-cum-entrepreneurs should find more time to explore these fields, not only for perspectives’ sake, but also for the sake of our global society.