Modern society addresses the ability of rapid learning a lot. To meet the word ‘rapid’, many learning projects emerge on market. They usually start with words like “n months”, “n weeks”, or end with “in just n weeks”, “in just n months”. And the marketing effect declines as `n` increases. People are inspired by encouraging ads, picturing a brighter future that will come true soon just after a bearable period of time. After all, all these projects present you with so many successful cases, so you think you are going to endeavor to learn this, then you can be one of those successful cases. But actually, you are fooled by survivorship bias. All those successful cases are advertised widely. All the failed cases just leave quietly, because no one likes to broadcast their failure, so they just want to keep it down.
What about the opposite way — the slow way? Slow minus rapid equals a lot extra time. Where should we put this part of time in. My answer is investing a lot of time into fundamentals. In this post I want to combine my learning experience with the The Slow Path to Proficiency way with thoughts I gained from other places, then share my thinking about the importance of learning fundamentals — especially for a newcomer in a filed.
1 Just needs to see one motion to realize the chasm
In the fall of 2015, I had the fortune to watch a tennis game of Roger Federer in Shanghai, along with many other world-class professional players. What impressed me most was how clean, smooth and effortless their motions were. Tennis is my favorite sport and I played a lot when I was in school. Although I wanted to play better and make progress through much practice, there were days I played for more than 6 hours , but actually most of my practice was casual and arbitrary.
At the moment I saw Roger’s swing. There’s only a “WOW” in my head. It’s like dancing, there’s not even a tiny redundant motion, and he swung as if he didn’t want to ‘hit’ the ball — he just swung, then the racket ‘met’ the ball just at the right moment and right position. This is an art of deep simplicity. In fact this feeling can be perceived on some professional junior players too, such as those in U18.
What they have in common is they all undergo years of systematic training instructed by professionals, and yes this needs much time and money investment. And most of their daily schedules are filled by fundamental practice. With this realization, I know why I had little progress even I put a lot time and effort playing, and this is a very common phenomenon among amateurs. They play a lot, but never do fundamental practice systematically, the consequence is at a certain point their level just stuck at a plateau, forever. They want to progress but they just don’t like practicing fundamentals, because it’s not as fun as playing games with friends.
2 See the big picture
Isn’t progressivism good?
In the past several months, I’ve been following a series of lectures about the developing process of human culture by Wang Dong Yue. An interesting phenomenon he introduces is that many great thinkers in history didn’t advocate progressivism. In other words, they didn’t think advances of science, of economy, of technology etc. were all good things for humans. Such as Laozi, Gautama Buddha.
He generalizes human culture(so far) as four stages: pre-theological stage, theological stage, agricultural stage, industrial and commercial stage. Most developed countries today are at the industrial and commercial stage. And there will have new culture in the future. The opposing of society advances sounds antisocial today, why there are people having such opinion? How can you think of advances of productivity and science as not good?
Most modern technologies are deferred punishment.
— Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Big tree vs. little tree
I am not bringing this topic to discuss whether or not I agree with one of these opinions. I want to introduce you how they gained this perspective. To simply put, the main reason is they lived at the early stage in human history. During that time, it was easier to see the big picture than we do today. If we think of modern civilization as a luxuriant big tree, then at the time they lived, human civilization was only a small seedling.
When we look at a seedling, it’s easy to observe the whole tree and we might gain a wisdom to discover some future tendency of the tree, no matter good or bad. But if we live on a perch of a high branch in our whole life, it’s hard to tell where the the tree’s torso is growing towards. Just as in today, nobody can predict what the world would be like 20 years later.
This tree metaphor can be applied to many other things. One example is there were just a few subjects at the early stage of human history, such as theology, philosophy, math. But today we have more than thousands of subjects there and the number keeps growing. And it seems every tiny branch can take one’s lifelong time to learn. Therefore, how and where to invest time becomes important.
However, time doesn’t flow backwards, big trees don’t grow back to seedlings. Is it still realistic to see the big picture for today’s people? The key here is the measure. If you want to have the whole tree, it’s unrealistic. But if you want to have “a little tree of the big tree”, it’s possible. What is “a little tree of the big tree”? We know that the process of a tree’s branching is self-similar. That means the shapes of a tree under different scales look similar. “a little tree of the big tree” means part of the big tree at a relatively small scale. If you have a “complete branch” of a tree, then it looks just like the big tree from a macro perspective, then every time we gain a perspective of seeing a little tree, we gain a little wisdom about the big picture. We don’t expect ourselves to become a great thinker, but at least we can expect ourselves to become a better thinker. So this way of gaining wisdom is feasible.
3 New things derive from fundamental things, not from the newest things
Here’s another tree example — evolution tree. From single-celled life to multicellular life to arthropods and mollusk to fish to amphibians to reptiles to mammals …, more and more advanced creatures derive(evolve) from simpler life forms. The more advanced, the more complex the creature, and creatures at the top of the evolution tree are considered more free and adaptable, like tiger and human. However there is an obvious trend that the more advanced a creature is, the quicker it becomes extinct.
You can find several types of single-celled life forms exist for more than 3 billion years, but you cannot find a single type of mammal exists for 500 million years. Successful creature as dinosaurs were only on Earth for about 12 million years.
Another obvious thing is new life forms don’t normally derive from advanced ones, they derive from more fundamental(simple) life forms. For example fish, there are numerous types of fishes, from a tiny fish to a big whale. However the diversion between fish and amphibian didn’t happen on advanced fish types, it happened on low level fish types, then there could have the possibility to develop more advanced terrestrial animals such as reptiles and mammals.
If we examine the development of computer and software, what keep unchanging are the underlying `1`s and `0`s, what are transitory are most fancy apps. A low level language can develop a high level language, and a high level language can develop a framework, and a highly specialized framework has little possibility to form new techniques. So in this respect mastering a language is better than jumping directly into frameworks.
4 Lindy effect
The Lindy effect is a theory that the future life expectancy of some non-perishable things like a technology or an idea is proportional to their current age, so that every additional period of survival implies a longer remaining life expectancy.
This effect manifests on many things in our daily life. For example, chair. If chair has existed for more than 5000 years, then it’s likely that chair will continue existing within the next 5000 years. But don’t fall into a logic fallacy here, it doesn’t mean once a thing exists for 1 day, it would exist forever. We must gauge both the age and “health” of the thing to determine continued survival. If a thing, more precisely a concept is robust and useful, then it tends to continue existing for as long as its history. Although there may have thousands of variants of chair, but the fundamentally conceptual “chair” never changes.
Apply this effect to programming, I don’t mean that all frameworks won’t last long, but it does need time to test their robustness. So if one likes chasing after every newly developed framework, it is not only exhausting, but also risky.
5.1 fundamentals are layered
Let’s recall the tree metaphor mentioned before. Say there is a tree called programming and you want to have(learn) it. Then you do some research on the internet, then you find most information telling you learning a framework like Rails or Angular is the most effective way to learning programming. But there are a few people advocate another notion called mastery-based learning which seems completely opposite to the framework one. This mastery-based learning approach addresses a lot about mastering fundamentals, and the chain of its reasoning sounds solid. After a long contemplation, you mumble in you mind: “I think I’ve never been such a guy who could master something complicated in just a few months, at least this never happened in my past”. So you decide give the mastery-based thing a try, focus on fundamentals first! But what are the fundamentals of programming? Math? Eh..It should be, but not exactly. Computer Science? This seems closer than Math. Maybe, then you get confused soon.
After another round of frantic searching, you seek out the different layers building up to various softwares and applications.
- softwares / applications
- hight level languages & operating system
- virtual machine
- assembly language
- machine language
- hardware platform
- chips and logic gates
Every layer lies as the foundation of next layer above. What about layers lower than chips and logic gates? That’s something about physics, no way, that is too much! The tree is too big.
We can solve this by focusing on “a little tree of the big tree”. By doing this, we can at least hold a small but complete part of the whole tree. If we follow the layers listed above, “a little tree” refers to each single layer.
But notice, there isn’t another layer lies upon the top layer “softwares / applications”. So it is not actually the foundation of any higher level technique. Therefore it should not be considered as one of these fundamentals, at least in the early stage of your study.
5.2 fundamental from different perspectives
From tennis’ perspective:
Fundamentals in tennis include many basic movements for each motion(like serve, forehand, backhand etc.), physical fitness, mental robustness. The finally wanted result is you can perform a hit without thinking about you posture, and avoid being disturbed by emotion. This means you need muscle memory for all the movements and a steady physical and mental state.
As you slowly master these fundamentals, you also set a high baseline of you skill. That means you will have a steady performance beyond a certain level. This will distinguish you from other amateurs.
From the tree metaphor’s perspective:
As with the tree metaphor, I’d prefer to define fundamentals as the parts between every two consecutive branching points.
If we harvest this part from any place on a tree, we harvest all the branches at and above this part. But what I actually want to say is: mastering fundamentals of a certain level, you gain all the potentialities to master all the layers above this layer.
And it’s also not the case that the lower the better, because the lower you are at, the farther you are away from practice. Lower layers have to be more stable and unchangeable to serve as solid foundations for higher layers, and normally they can’t be put into place with their simple form. So for a beginner, focus on a layer that is a few(maybe one or two) layers lower than the highest layer is an appropriate choice.
From evolution’s perspective:
If you want to gain knowledge which has the potential of evolving to new knowledge, learning fundamentals is a good choice. This means focus on things that are not so advanced, focus on things that have basic but stable features. Focusing on advanced things at the early stage of learning will fix your path of development, then you lose a lot of possibilities.
From Lindy-effect’s perspective:
Basic and robust concepts always stand in the long run. Once you know conceptual chair, you can recognize and make any type of chair. Learning basic concepts is an effective way to make your knowledge reusable and extendable.
6 Finding fundamentals
Once we are convinced to focus on fundamentals, there is still a big missing part of the puzzle — as a beginner, how do we know which are the fundamental concepts or knowledge to a specific layer? The simple answer is we don’t know. That’s where we need professionals — people who can see the big picture. But this topic is not covered in this post. Before finding professional instructions, we first need to firm our belief in learning fundamentals, because that won’t be a happy-and-easy process.
The tree metaphor is actually an over-simplified model of knowledge. But to a large extent it reflects the process of the development of human culture and knowledge, as well as the process of mastering a new skill. Fundamentals present in many layers, we should choose one layer to focus on at the early stage of learning. Fundamental things tend to exist longer, so investing a relatively large portion of time in this part is both necessary and beneficial, especially from a long-term perspective. Technologies change so rapidly today, if we are unable to hold something that is unchanging and stable on the long run, we can’t stand too long.
- fundamentals are the foundation of deep simplicity.
- learning fundamentals helps us gain wisdom to see the big picture.
- learning fundamentals makes our time investing more valuable from a long-term perspective
- learning fundamentals doesn’t mean we have to learn all fundamentals through all the layers at one time
- professional instruction is very very very important