Forget Linear

How often in your life have you heard that you need to follow precise steps to achieve all your dreams? If you can count the number of times on one hand, I suspect you haven’t been alive very long. In which case, welcome to the world! We have an irritating amount of false promises, biases and contradictions.

However, there’s a much higher chance that you sighed in agreement while having flashbacks to the countless listicles on the best ways to get that promotion.

From a very early age, we’re expected to progress through life and topics in a linear fashion. Our educational systems are designed as a series of steps. Each step using information from the last to help us progress. All in the hopes that we’ll end up at some, often unclear, gilded end point. The best case scenario being that we’re on a coherent path to a destination we understand. The worse case scenario is setting foot on murky terrain where the end point isn’t obvious or exciting.

Humans probably love looking at things linearly because we’re surrounded by natural systems that seem linear. Time being the biggest offender. So, it only makes sense that we want to apply that framing to everything we do as a species.

Linear progressions tie things up nicely for us. It gives us a sense of progress---one that’s easy to look back on---even if it’s ultimately a mirage.

Unfortunately for us, this way of thinking closes us off to the realities of the world. Even though our system of time may move in a linear fashion, there are constant branches of complex interaction happening around us. A fractal of events, touching aspects far beyond what we can see or comprehend. We’re surrounded by exponential and logarithmic relationships, we just suck at observing them. COVID-19 being an excellent example of how bad we are at understanding these situations intuitively.

It doesn’t help that the complexity of non-linearity is scary. It pushes us to think far beyond the sequenced nature of our normal lives. We like to look for things with direct inputs and outputs. It gives us comfort. We view careers and life as a step function. Relationships needs to hit certain milestones for them to feel good, to feel “correct”. Our expectations are constantly set against goalposts that should be straight ahead.

How often do things actually go according to plan in your life? When do things actually follow a linear pattern when you examine them? Outside of a class lesson plan, I’d suspect there are very few things that fit within the linear pattern you’re brain is looking for.

Education is one of the biggest perpetuators of linear thinking out there. Entire schools and lesson plans are forged with the idea of progressive disclosure in mind. Often times obfuscating the actual value away from the people learning it. “Oh no, we can’t possibly show them what they’ll be able to do at the end of our lessons. It’ll be far too advanced! It’ll just scare them away from learning.”

Really? What if that’s the best way for some students to learn? Not once in my life has this style of education worked for me. Show me the end state, and break down what’s required to get there. Give me versions of that end state along the way, and you bet your ass I’ll make it to the end. Especially if the end state can be applied to skills used in real-life!

Why can’t mathematics be taught while building video games? Why can’t we learn to write while sending DMs in class to our friends? As a kid, If you sat me down and told me at the end of the year, I’d be able to ollie better on my skateboard because I’d learn the physics of it all; you bet your ass I would’ve stayed in school a lot longer.

If we’re going to stick to this whole linearity thing, we might as well add some clarity and excitement to it.

I’m aware this is probably a very personal trait. Not everyone is comfortable in an environment that isn’t laid out in a progressive manner. But I’ve often wondered whether that was a function of nature or nurture. If we blew up our educational systems tomorrow, how much more would people achieve and get excited about if they weren’t so focused on building a straight line through their lives?

That’s not to say I’m not guilty of following that pattern. I absolutely am. I tend to fall into a linear state of mind when reading or studying. I feel like I have to read everything in the order the material is presented to me. Page counters don’t help with that. Incrementing numbers that move from smallest to largest kind of invite that thinking.

It’s bullshit, though. You often end up taking in more information that you need. It lays down a path of completionism, not comprehension. And it’s taken me years to give myself permission to jump around.

I typically avoid books longer than 400 pages, especially when it’s dense educational material, because of that linear frame of mind. The thought of working my way through it exhausted me before I even started. How can I possibly to get through the whole thing? The truth is, you probably aren’t meant to. Not unless everything single thing in that book is pertinent to what you’re doing. And in my experience, that’s very rarely true.

Ever since I learned about the concept of just-in-time information versus just-in-case information, my approach to how I learn new topics has changed. Even though I want to learn everything I can about a topic, I start with what’s the most interesting to me. It doesn’t matter what you should know first, what matters is this one question: “will this scratch my itch and is it relevant to what I’m trying to do/learn right now?” From there, you work backwards. What are the bits of information that make up this end state I’m trying to get to? What terms or pieces of information am I missing? Go get clarity on those.

By working backwards, you create a roadmap of things that are relevant, and purposefully ignoring the things that aren’t. You’d be surprised at how much you end up learning that way. The best part of it all? You’ll be applying what you learn immediately, which is the best way to solidify what you’re picking up.

I’m sure there’s a part of you that’s scared to take that path. “What if I miss something crucial? What if I make a mistake because I skipped over a piece of information?” Take a deep breath, and relax. Unless you’re studying to become a doctor---in which case please go to school---you’ll likely be fine. And if you do miss something, that’s kind of part of how you learn, isn’t it? By missing it, you’ll have found the information in the best way possible, when it was required learning.

Try not to let linearity fool you anymore. Start where you want to start. Find the path that works for you, even if it means starting at the end or the middle. You might be surprised at the treasures of knowledge you pickup along the way.

This was written as part of my 52 weeks of creation. You can read the entry if you’re curious about why I wrote this essay.