A while back I asked famed autodidact Eric Raymond about how he learns things, and he told me that he tends to study multiple subjects at a time with little to no structure involved. I tried this, and noticed that what usually happens is that each field I study suggests additional fields to study, and when I begin to look into those fields still further fields pique my interest, until I’m reading 10 books and 35 papers all at once and making only the most incremental of progress. Eventually the whole thing collapses on itself and I feel depressed for a couple of days.
I call this gnostic creep, a deliberate nod to the concept of “scope creep“.
You might be tempted to advocate for studying only one subject or one book at a time; this is pretty good advice, but easier said than done. For one thing, the front and back cover of a book are often fairly arbitrary beginning and ending points. You may get halfway through a book about the rise of the Nazi party in Germany, only to realize that you can’t make sense of these events until you stop and learn a little about the intellectual history of Fascism in pre-war Europe. But even when this isn’t the case, poor wording or explanations which assume too much background knowledge may force you to look elsewhere.
Example: I’m studying set theory right now in a bid to assemble the tools necessary to understand the research on Friendliness in Superintelligent AIs. One of the recommended books is “Naive Set Theory” by Paul Halmos. It’s very concise, but often utilizes archaic notation and proofs that are so informal that it’s difficult for a novice mathematician to find intellectual purchase on them. To compensate, I piece the ideas together by referencing other books, but I eventually find myself with too much on my plate and no clear strategy for proceeding.
So far, the only thing that has worked is taking a day or two off when the pressure of gnostic creep reaches a certain threshold. I also have a friend who is tutoring me in mathematics, so I’m going to try breaking my learning up into smaller chunks by meeting with him for 20-30 minutes several times a week rather than for 90 minutes once a week.
I’m inclined think that intelligence isn’t a significant factor here; a person who is smarter than me but who lacks a mechanism for temporarily erecting a boundary around a given gnostic enterprise would simply have gnostic creep set in a lot more quickly than in does for me. Presumably the gnostic creep for a genius like John Conway would result in their head exploding.
I seems most likely that those among my heroes who are world-class auhodidacts are doing something which makes them more effective, and which they probably aren’t even aware of.