How to Learn About Everything

by Eric Drexler on 2009/05/27

Long library shelves
The internet almost
makes it too easy

My recent post “How to Understand Everything (and Why)” discussed an untaught, integrative kind of knowledge, and why it is so important in science and engineering — how it can leverage specialized knowledge and improve the trade-off between bold innovation and costly blunders. I discussed the nature of this knowledge and how it can be applied, but not how to learn it.

Note that the title above isn’t “how to learn everything”, but “how to learn about everything”. The distinction I have in mind is between knowing the inside of a topic in deep detail — many facts and problem-solving skills — and knowing the structure and context of a topic: essential facts, what problems can be solved by the skilled, and how the topic fits with others.

This knowledge isn’t superficial in a survey-course sense: It is about both deep structure and practical applications. Knowing about, in this sense, is crucial to understanding a new problem and what must be learned in more depth in order to solve it. The cross-disciplinary reach of nanotechnology almost demands this as a condition of competence.

Studying to learn about everything

To intellectually ambitious students I recommend investing a lot of time in a mode of study that may feel wrong. An implicit lesson of classroom education is that successful study leads to good test scores, but this pattern of study is radically different. It cultivates understanding of a kind that won’t help pass tests — the classroom kind, that is.

  1. Read and skim journals and textbooks that (at the moment) you only half understand. Include Science and Nature.
  2. Don’t halt, dig a hole, and study a particular subject as if you had to pass a test on it.
  3. Don’t avoid a subject because it seems beyond you — instead, read other half-understandable journals and textbooks to absorb more vocabulary, perspective, and context, then circle back.
  4. Notice that concepts make more sense when you revisit a topic.
  5. Notice which topics link in all directions, and provide keys to many others. Consider taking a class.
  6. Continue until almost everything you encounter in Science and Nature makes sense as a contribution to a field you know something about.

Why is this effective?

You learned your native language by immersion, not by swallowing and regurgitating spoonfuls of grammar and vocabulary. With comprehension of words and the unstructured curriculum of life came what we call “common sense”.

The aim of what I’ve described is to learn an expanded language and to develop what amounts to common sense, but about an uncommonly broad slice of the world. Immersion and gradual comprehension work, and I don’t know of any other way.

This process led me to explore the potential of molecular nanotechnology as a basis for high-throughput atomically precise manufacturing. If broad-spectrum common sense were more widespread among scientists, there would be no air of controversy around the subject, milestones like the U.S. National Academies report on molecular manufacturing would have been reached a decade earlier, and today’s research agenda and perception of global problems would be very different.

(Revised 9 Feb 2010)
(Belorussian translation provided by Patricia Clausnitzer, 25 Aug 2010)

See also:

{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark Bruce May 27, 2009 at 10:52 am UTC

Interesting things happen to a mind exposed to such a wide swathe of human knowledge. Good things. An expansion of the imagination and appreciation for what might be possible. The development of robust cognitive filters and resistance to the irrational. I’ve noticed it in myself over years of reading widely and frequently across all areas of science and technology – with some unfortunate gaps (for me personally) in computer programming fundamentals (can still appreciate applications and development paths). I’ve become a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. But I’m happy with that; I take pleasure in such a broad knowledge-base and it helps with assisting technology developments into the marketplace.

ben May 27, 2009 at 3:13 pm UTC

Wow, I have never met someone else who does this. For years I simply went to the library and pulled journal after journal and did this on random topics. I looked up the textbooks for random professions such as medicine, pharmacology, finance and physics and read them.

The only subject I have not been able to do this with is pure math. Everything else is relatively easy to get to grips with.

Once you have done 10 or so topics, things start getting easier from my experience, and there isn’t much you can’t learn to converse in within 24 hours. This year I have learned varied topics from nanotech to mechatronics to science of persuasion and it seems to be speeding up.

The one great thing about this is that you can talk to field leaders (research scientists) about their topic, often in great depth and sometimes even teach them a thing or two by comparing fields.

Peter Vander Klippe May 27, 2009 at 4:05 pm UTC

Wow from me also. This is exactly how I learn. I read way too much about everything, often things way over my head, but I understand more and more.

Immersion in the subject makes so much sense.

Thanks for the post.

Kaushik Katari May 27, 2009 at 6:04 pm UTC

This is indeed a very good post. Another way of staying abreast of random subjects is through book reviews and editorial pieces. As a full time graduate student, I loved reading the first few pages of Nature, which were editorial pieces, and the book reviews.

Thomas Petersen May 27, 2009 at 10:40 pm UTC

Me to!!! Crazy that is exactly how I think. Good to know there are other who “know less and less about more and more until we know nothing about everything”

Ulisses Marioto May 28, 2009 at 4:31 am UTC

Hi Mr Drexler

You are a genius, i talked to you here in Brazil at Institute of Research Technology, did you remember?, IPT (Instituto de Pesquisa Tecnológica)

I´m a young economista , i sad you that i will study a paper with molecular nanotecnology, and what´s the impact of your technology in the capitalists relation of production, a new industrial revolution

I get some revolucionary technologies , like a cold fusion, nanomedicine, your technology, and other

It´s a liberalism anda marxism and these technologies, I´ll use a lot of economists: Carl Manger, Bohm Bawek, Mises, Hayek, Karl Marx, Alfred Marshall, Schumpeter, David Ricard , Adam Smith and other

I hope you like

It was pleasure to met you here

I hope some day , we can meet again.

Write to me

I need more information, if you translater your books in portuguese , i apreciate you, because, been talked to a economists here , they loved my theory anda some of them can help, for more studies about

Sorry my english hehehehe

See you

Ulisses Marioto May 29, 2009 at 3:48 pm UTC

Did you the supercomputer which IBM created?

SEQUOIA: “Sequoia will be based on future IBM BlueGene technology, exceed 20 petaflops (quadrillion floating operations per second) and will be delivered in 2011 with operational deployment in 2012.”

Only with 1 petaflop is possible to create virtual reality like matriz, it.s mean that 1 million

Imagine the 1 billion like the example of nanofactory posted in youtube ou in site nanofactory collaboration.

I think the education of the future will not monopolized in large estrutucteres university or schools, It will be very democratic.

Imagine, id´like to learn aboute THE FRENCH REVOLUTION, it´s easy, I use may notebook with 1 billion c.p.u.s anda i get into a reality virtual, and I see Robespierre and the revolucionaies taked the power, so real

Suppose that i wanto to learn aboute the atoms, I get into the atom, and i see , how this work, in another reality.

The softwares can be in internet available for anyone would like to knowledge, this is a great revolution.

It´s already possibel, in mainframe

Now we need with nanotecnology´s help minituarize this mainframe in a nootbook for the population, it´s possible only the molecular manufacturing.

Ulisses Marioto May 29, 2009 at 3:51 pm UTC

sorry my wrong, i wrote very fast hehhehehe

Pat Galea May 30, 2009 at 8:29 am UTC

It’s great to see a post on this way of learning, and to see that so many other people do the same thing. Yes, I’m also one of these learners. Even as a kid, I’d get books on strange topics that I knew nothing about, and I’d build up a working model of the subject.

Robin Gleaves June 1, 2009 at 8:13 am UTC

An interesting article (found from MargRev). I also try to immerse myself when learning about new areas and yes I’m a consultant.

Another analogy I have for this is the darkened room – until I’ve touched all the walls I don’t know the scope of the subject/space. For me this scoping out includes the history of a subject. I was gobsmacked recently to read about Descartes’ laws of motion, for example.

You might also want to look at expertise and H. Collins recent introduction of the idea of interactional v. contributory expertises.

bartkid August 6, 2009 at 2:39 pm UTC

>Read and skim journals and textbooks that (at the moment) you only half understand.
I recommend doing title searches at your local library for:
“… Demystified”,
“Introducing … “,
“A Brief History of…”,
“A Short Introduction to … “, and
“… For Beginners”.

They have allowed me to be such an armchair expert on everything.

Doug Treadwell October 23, 2009 at 2:59 pm UTC

I have a similar habit. Even though I’m just a lowly undergrad, I’ve got books on my shelf on Biochemistry, Biomechanics, etc. that I won’t actually reach in college for another year, two, or more. It’s interesting how much a person can actually understand even though you don’t have the prerequisites.

I think the idea of learning things with the purpose of test taking has good sides and bad, but I do notice that while a person can obtain functional knowledge of a subject reasonably quickly (and then work out the bugs by doing), learning for test taking requires a much greater amount of time. That most of that time is spent learning trivial details is why I don’t prefer that method.

Gerard Sorme November 27, 2009 at 5:04 am UTC

I’m late to the party on this thread, but it’s truly spot-on. I wanted to add one thing to the learning-by-immersion process that I have used for years: Book Summaries. There are several good services that offer top-notch non-fiction book summaries. The key is to receive the summaries on topics you know the LEAST about (on the assumption you’re already reading in your own fields of regular interest). It’s amazing what you can learn from reading a ten-minute summary of a book that you otherwise wouldn’t touch. Multiply this by dozens of these summaries a year, every year, year after year; and while you’re learning a lot, you’re really learning what you really want to learn more about!

Thank you Dr. Drexler, this was truly an excellent post on a method of learning that is, in fact, common sense. Unfortunately, too many of our temples of education attempt to enforce rigid rules on compliance of a uniform structure (no matter the subject) rather than focus on the process of learning (again, no matter the subject). Kudos.

Eric Drexler November 28, 2009 at 3:46 am UTC

@ bartkid, Gerard Sorme —Thanks for offering suggestions with good, concrete advice. We’ll never know what will be learned by readers you’ve advised, or what they’ll do with the knowledge. The possibilities range from nil to world-changing.

J. Scott December 1, 2009 at 4:56 pm UTC

Dr. Drexler, Great post…I found your work via John Robb and Zenpundit. I’m largely self-taught, so your recommendations in many cases are a way of life for me. 25 years ago I taught myself economic and political theory by chasing footnotes from one classic to another—which meant I read a lot of older books.
Right now I’m learning about knowledge via a book by Japanese academics—using Michael Polanyi’s seminal Personal Knowledge; Kuhn is next up.
One thing that has been a challenge is maintaining mathmatical abilities—-I have found that is one skill-set that requires fairly consistent use.
Great blog, I’ll be back.
Many thanks!

Eric Drexler December 2, 2009 at 5:54 am UTC

@ J. Scott — Thanks. I enjoyed Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge, which helps to dispel the illusion (fostered, for example, by what we are taught) that all knowledge is the kind of knowledge that can be taught, or that is general enough to be worth teaching, or even explicit and conscious enough to be recognized as knowledge. This is related, of course, to the Austrian school’s most fundamental critique of strong central planning — that much of the vital knowledge used in the human world cannot, even in principle, be transmitted to a center.

Re. mathematics, there are at least two useful kinds of knowledge: practical know-how — the mathematical skills you refer to — and general awareness of the scope and structure of mathematics. The best book I know of for the latter is Mathematics: Form and Function by my favorite mathematician, Saunders Mac Lane, one of the founders of category theory. Mac Lane’s book examines the origin of mathematical concepts (e.g., numbers, geometry) that predate literacy, and the form, function, and inter-relationships of everything from calculus and group theory to topology, tensors, and adjoint functors. Worth chewing on (though marred by typos and mis-drawn diagrams).

J. Scott December 2, 2009 at 1:46 pm UTC

Dr. Drexler, Thanks for the tip on MacLane’s book…a copy is on the way!

Michael December 19, 2009 at 5:35 am UTC

Nice to see so many others that learn the way I do. I’ve had a lot of trouble finding what I want to specialize in. But at the same time I’ve found that I really enjoying knowing about everything.

Like you mention the “about” is having a deep understanding of how each process works, it’s structure. I hope I one day find a field to specialize in so that I can apply all this general knowledge of everything to it.

One thing I noticed, someone said they had trouble applying this method to Math. Math has to be approached like learning a new language. There are crash courses out there for getting a solid grasp of it just like there are for learning Spanish or German. Where you can build a conversational capability and be able to read it for the most part.

Sara February 26, 2010 at 2:12 pm UTC

I agree with what you said about just reading journal articles (I’m starting to do that now on the long commute to school) and I’m constantly looking for new books or recommended books on the topics I’m studying in school but I find it hard to find time, the enemy for all of us seeking great bounds of knowledge.

I’m also attending an extra lecture because the professor teaches rather well but I suppose I should stop attending because I DO want to be able to read the extra books and have time to question some fundamentals, research the history behind the topic and try to work it out myself instead of having someone feed to me. Would that be wise? I hope so.

Could you perhaps write up an entry about some of your favorite books particularly for nanotechnology or courses that you feel are important to take to understand nanotechnology?

Thanks a lot in advance!

Luis Roa March 16, 2010 at 5:21 am UTC

Dr. Drexel,

very nice post! I’ve always recommended my students and kids to study in this fashion. Same as you I believe it gives great results. Not emphasized in your post, though, is what I believe is the underlying reason: the brain’s plasticity and its ability to,unconsciously detect and create connections between topics. A cursory read is not enough, one needs to re-read the same books, articles, etc. as the brain develops further knowledge, until one really understands, at the level that I believe you suggest in your article. It is not just to have superficial knowledge, it is to be able to “complete the dots” and “fill in the blanks” as one really understands the structures and the problems in those different fields. The 2 “Notice that/which…” are the key sentences in the article, at least for me…

Again, great post.

Luis Roa

Roman - yes this is an actual name March 14, 2011 at 11:41 pm UTC

First of all ..thx for that article! I am also considering giving up all my free time for this cause.. :)
Advice for everyone: consider selective reading in known subjects and full(text) reading in less known subjects. Another useful thing is to think about systematization in learning – don’t just learn/read different topics without finding out how their are connected to each other and to the subject itself. Those are some of the useful things that Pedagogy teaches us :)

Mousab March 15, 2011 at 9:27 am UTC

To Be totally honest I loved reading this article and I’m currently in a stage of my life where I’m thinking about everything, trying to digest all the basics and all the complexity, understanding the links and trying to unify the way i think of everything,,,

But should i investigate the engineering or computer software, the basics of nuclear physics or maybe the extent of the universe , the human complexity or the secrets of our existence.

will i learn all of this or must we ( as humans ) define a master plan to achieve this “theory of all” where the result will be simply, a person how knows everything… ???

dort March 16, 2011 at 9:23 pm UTC

LOL! I am really late to this party….
Too bad they don’t teach elementary school kids this way. I would have loved school then.
I shall have to make your blog an everyday exciting moment of immersion. Along with a cup of thick black coffee. : )

Bárbara April 19, 2011 at 7:29 pm UTC

Dr. Drexler.

It’s definitelly late to write here but either way… I totally agree with this post. Since my point of view, all these things you’ve mentioned here are the only way to get to a great knowledge.
Were I allowed to introduce myself, I’m a biotechnology student from Spain. It’s my first year at university and during this time I’ve realised studying is not an easy thing, as you know, it requires a lot of time and effort. That’s why I’ve been wondering myself whether it comes a time when you look back in your life and you feel all you’ve been doing, working on, all the discoveries you’ve got, worth all the time invested, all the things you’ve probably miss and so on. Because sometimes I’ve got the feeling that if I continue with this degree, and I’m able to become an investigator, I’ll miss a lot of things from life, you know, time with friends, family, trips.. and so on.
I just felt curious about how a person like you could feel after having been studying for so long. It would be kind of you if you could just write something regarding all this, in any post. (I’d be glad to recieve some email from you too, but I know this would be difficult ;)).
I think that’s all. Thank you if you’re reading this, and sorry for my language mistakes!


D. W. Allen May 29, 2011 at 12:48 pm UTC

Dr. Drexler,

This strategy for learning is most applicable in the social sciences and philosophy. A fundamental reason for its effectiveness is that the “deep structures” of thinking, which generate knowledge, are “modal” and create “new knowledge” largely by means of analogy. The artificially constructed “compartmentalization” of knowledge has done a great deal to limit human understanding by failing to take into account the “modal structure” of the inquiring mind and the corresponding multivocality and complexity of the world system.

Princess Rainbow V.Angeles June 13, 2011 at 5:14 pm UTC

hi im princess im just an ordanary kid.and i want to learn everything.
im grade 4.Im 8 years old now.But i love to read.I want to learn more.
im good at test`s i want to be smart i want to use my brain to challege.
i want to be good,smart,brave and everything thank you…

GratefulRob July 22, 2011 at 2:27 pm UTC

I have found it very helpful to get an idea of the evolution of a topic, usually the thoughts of the pioneers in any given field encompass and connect the concepts that can tend to become disparate. I then find the ‘jargon’ easier to understand when one can see how and why it evolves.
P.S. I’d love to talk with others who have built a framework of ‘everything’ and have learned to place the details in their proper perspective. Feel free to email me.

Benjamin March 1, 2012 at 10:57 pm UTC

I am a college student freshman at the moment with an undeclared major, and have hit a wall. I want to know everything about how things work, in a very general way, from how the universe works to how the mind works. Others seem skeptical about me wanting to study all these fields, some dropping the saying “jack-of-all-trades, master of none”, but I think that all these fields of science can be applied to each other. Two examples, archaeology uses knowledge of geology and biology, and psychology uses knowledge of biology and chemistry.
I don’t know why people think that humans have limits or should focus in a single field. Don’t they call that behavior ‘narrow-minded’? If I am asked a question, I want to be able to answer it.

Karen Fu April 3, 2012 at 4:34 am UTC

Fully agree with the author! Personally I too skim and read anything that is very interesting to me. And I didn’t bother if I actually know it at all, cos eventually after reading it, the terms will sink in. I was trained in industrial design but went on to read my interest in product design which is different from industrial as the latter will include all the various engineering aspects of making. I apply the same concept to economics, marketing, philo and the rest. It cultivates the passion for learning as i am not bug down with any kind of pressure. I just learn and swing along. And that actually makes you learn more. I hope the author of this site, Dr Eric Dexler, could kindly advice a college or how to go about materializing these knowledge into quantifiable degrees that I could use to enter into the real world business of making my ideas live. I think I have plenty of obstacles here in Singapore where they need this to go there and that to do that. Cheers!

Karen fu April 3, 2012 at 4:52 am UTC

Read quickly on the other pages, and I am so happy! I have just realized npmy typo in my earlier post at number 41. It should be product design being the one that requires more in depth engineering know how. Though really industrial design would require that same branch of knowledge too, just a difference in depth. I have also missed a point why I actually come to this site. I was actually wanting to study nanotech and material science. Googling brought me to this site, which I am do happy about. I was a science student before I became an arts student. Then I romped into design which was a BA degree, which may be a problem for me to do an engineering degree now. Well actually it does. I would really be so grateful if Dr Dexler could kindly advise me how to go about doing a nanotech or material science degree. I had hoped to do a masters at SUTD whose lead college is MIT, but I have doubts on that. Much to say about it on its own but currently the urgent matter is to sort how to get on to nanotech. I love the subject! Hope to hear some replies here. Cheers!

Hamidreza March 4, 2013 at 3:20 pm UTC

Dear my friend (Professor Drexler),

I graduated with B.Sc. in Mechanical Engineering. To tell you the truth, when i read some thing about science and nature, it is inspired me. And your field is the thing that I want (Molecular modelling).

I would be thankful for your advice.

Best regards,

Osvaldo April 9, 2013 at 3:56 am UTC

Hi, I think your website might be having browser compatibility issues.
When I look at your blog site in Chrome, it looks fine
but when opening in Internet Explorer, it has some
overlapping. I just wanted to give you a quick heads up!
Other then that, great blog!

NJ January 27, 2014 at 5:19 am UTC

Thank you for clarifying what I just recently started to understand about myself, at 30. I used to think it was odd that I wanted to learn everything. But recently I have realized it is really about taking the fundamental mystery away surrounding a topic. Or “about” everything as you stated.

A few months back I took a college course on HTML and CSS because I’ve always wanted to know how websites are made and posted online. But I thought it was just beyond me for the longest time even though I’m very technically minded in other respects (putting together computers, optimizing and maintaining them). The class was great and HTML is no longer magic in my mind and now I know how to make a basic site using HTML and CSS.

It was just the knowledge of general structures or principals that I was after and which I received. I have zero interest in pursuing it deeper but that nagging feeling about what magical things went on behind my computer monitor is partly eased…now Im trying to learn about the back end. :)

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