Building the Big Picture


One of the questions I'm often asked about incremental learning is how to build the big picture if you're always breaking things into seemingly isolated pieces.

In Deep knowledge is made of shallow links, I described the importance of emergence: Once you link enough puzzle pieces together, the bigger picture can show itself, even if there are still many gaps. Likewise, in Naive and wise simplicity, I described several stages in the process of building that big picture, starting from isolated ideas and moving towards well integrated knowledge that points towards a few core ideas.

Mistakes and Misconceptions

Before providing more to the answer, it's worth stepping back to see where the question comes from. In many cases, it comes from the contrast of incremental learning to traditional learning. In that sense, the question is partly born from misconceptions within traditional learning.

Information versus knowledge: The first mistake is to confuse notes with knowledge. The "big picture" can feel so much closer when you have a comprehensive textbook in your hands. You know that you only know a few pieces, but you trust that the textbook ultimately ties everything together. The problem here is that this is merely an illusion. The big picture is something you need to build in your head. Having a comprehensive set of notes all in front of you at the same time - whether they're your own notes or others' - has nothing to do with your knowledge. It's just information. It may give you confidence that you can build the big picture, but that is just a hope. The reality is that the big picture, to the extent that it exists, lives in your brain. If removing the textbook from your hands, or removing your comprehensive notes from your sight, results in feeling lost, then you never had the big picture in the first place. Not having all your notes in front of you at the same time is a new feeling in incremental learning, but it doesn't take the big picture away. At worst, it exposes your true level of understanding. The good news is that you can make real progress once you understand how the big picture is truly built (see: road network analogy, below).

Memory storage versus retrieval: Another mistake is the expectation that the big picture consists of recalling all the pieces, all the details, at the same time. In fact, the whole point of building the big picture is to discover a few key ideas, which replace the need to recall and think about all the details at once. But that doesn't mean the details aren't important or don't exist in your memory. A few seconds ago, you probably weren't thinking about how many siblings you have. But if I ask, you can think about it and tell me. Knowing something and retrieving it are two different things. Therefore, while you may be engaging with only a single note at a time, that doesn't mean the rest of your knowledge is gone. In fact, as you'll see below, thinking about a small piece of the puzzle at a time can be very effective for building the big picture.

Knowledge as a Road Network

As you read the following analogy, you can think of each individual road as a single memory, linking a couple of ideas. You can also think of the bigger network as your brain; the messy collection of all your memories.

The road network in my city has many roads, but they were not all built at once. There were a few main roads at first, broad and simple, and smaller roads began to be connected as the city grew. Between the main roads, new side roads were built, and as new suburbs grew out from the city centre, more roads were built. Even after hundreds of years, new roads continue to be built.

At the same time, all those old roads need to be maintained. I am often slowed by roadworks as I drive down the road, because the government is often maintaining the older roads. Luckily, they don't maintain them all at once, because I wouldn't be able to get anywhere. Instead, they move from one street to the next, maintaining each street on its own schedule.

The fact each main road and side road has been built independently of the rest has never prevented me from driving across town. While the building and maintenance might have to be incremental, and focused on only a small section of the network, when it comes to driving, I can start from an old side street on one side of town and reach a new main road on another side of town. What makes this possible is the fact that all the roads are well integrated. If a new street was built in isolation, on someone's private property, I wouldn't be able to use it to drive across town.


As you build your knowledge through incremental learning, it's worth remembering this analogy. The more you ensure that individual ideas are well integrated, the more likely you are to be working towards wisdom. Though you might only focus on one idea at a time as you learn and think, you have access to your whole network of knowledge whenever you like.

If you've focused on meaningfully related ideas, rather than isolated facts and figures, then you'll be able to navigate the network with ease, whenever you want. If you don't have your textbooks handy, you'll still feel confident because you're not confusing notes with knowledge.

Though you may not have everything recalled top of mind at every moment, you'll realise that you don't need to, and that that's not a valuable goal anyway. Instead, you'll be able to confidently talk about the one or two key ideas that matter. That's the big picture.

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