Why you should aim to know only 70% about any topic

Infinitely curious people face the problem of the finitude of their presence. We only have so much time and energy. Not enough to know everything about the subatomic to the astrophysical, the philosophical and the popular. There is a lot of knowledge and even more information out there.

This means that we have to pick and choose when we want to gain knowledge, broaden our horizons, become better thinkers, our broadly-inspired artists or engineers.

Despite the ambition to keep our horizons broad and the learning joyful. There is a risk of falling into the claw of specialisation,

We might find ourselves going to the same bookshelf in the local bookstore, or pick a PhD in a given field to increase our respectiability while the actual impetus behind such a decision was the first sparkle of curiosity you felt when you were taught more about the topic. You might have started your journey into the wondrous world of mushroom networks that bolster the ecosystem, supporting all life on earth. Now you are stuck analysing how a specific enzym in the network of mushrooms interacts with oxygen under hundreds of different circumstances.

While such a specialisation can be redeemed when these turn into ways of earning your living or contributing to the world (e.g. as a scientist), many of us have many others reasons that pull us into this claw. For instance, we might be charmed to reread some of what we already know, to give us the impression we are knowledgeable. Our friends might be the kind of people who usually talk about sports, or politics, or contemporary arts and we might not want to look stupid or ignorant in our interactions. Other reasons are the sheer lack of comfort when we first come across a new topic and have to learn new jargon and other methods and paradigms which might conflict with our present worldview.

As a student of philosophy, I often notice that individuals from STEM fields who have adopted a scientific realistic worldview are not aware of this deeper presupposition. This results in their rejection of all of philosophy as unfalsifiable storystelling instead of allowing for the opportunity investigate their field of research in a more profound way.

Einstein famously acknowledged this problem of anchoring scientific inquiry and “decided” to use the Spinozistic worldview to suggest both that (1) God existed, albeit in an immanent and non-agential way, and that (2) the universe has a rational structure which we are able to discover. I might not have remembered the details of his Spinostic worldview correctly, but I am aiming to only get this right for 70%. Smirk.

At this point I cannot justify the digression from the claim in my title further and decide to touch upon that argument.

The argument revolves around the claim that the value of being an expert in any given field is perhaps exaggarated if this expertise is not justified for reasons of usefulness for oneself or the world. The underlying mechanism I have in mind is the concept of diminishing returns which is probably a new paradigm many language learners (but I think mostly learners of Japanese) are shifting towards. I would like to transpose this new “insight” in language learning to general intellectual inquiry.

Steven Krashen a somewhat non-conventional language learning expert claimed that language learning is all-input. Just like we learn languages when we were babies, as a bunch of overzealous family members were competing for our kawaii energy, we as adults only really learn languages through immersion. An important fact that makes such an immersion effective in the first place is the repetition of words in certain emotionally-laden contexts.

It turns out that such a repetition of words is almosty inevitable, since the frequency of vocabulary usage is very much in line with a typical pareto distribution (on steroids). I am not sure about the exact numbers anymore but for Japanese I think that the most frequent 1000 words (in a list of potentially million words) covered 50% of the words used in most conversations. When you know 3000 words, I think it was about 75%. With 5000 it was 85% and with 10 000 around 94%. I am estimating that around 25 000 words would cover 99%. The smarty pantzers and/or careful readers among you might have notice something “odd-ish”.

Indeed, while every word in the list of the 1000 most used words is super valuable in understanding Japanese people, the value in comprehending the language drops for every additional word that is further down the frequency list. Another way to say this is that the marginal gain in language comprehension through vocabulary acquisition drops as the words you use become less common. At this point you might say: duh. But some people read this kind of stuff while they are commuting and some repetition is fine (mwkay?).

But languages are massive, enormous, highly-complex, organic beasts. They are truly humungous in size, scope, ambivalence, treachouresness, history, and value. Knowing even 70% of all Japanese (idioms, grammar, classical styles, vocabulary, dialects) is something that probably no Japanese person can claim to possess, while knowing 70% of the usual Japanese (including the highest academic levels and jargon) is probably more than sufficient to engage in almost all interactions possible or easily scale up when that is necessary. While gaining 70% in the latter case might take about 3–7 years (I have read different numbers), knowing the final 30% might take an additional 10 years. So in around 5 years, you can be highly fluent in a language that consists, for most English speakers, in undertaking a challenging marathon, while the additional 10 years are more-or-less geared towards pruning and countouring.

In the same time you spend on pruning your Japanese, you could become fluent in two other major world languages (more if you pick a few which are close to your native language). You could become skilled in programming or statistics. Experiment writing your first novels, poetry. Or gain knowledge on many intellectual fields ranging from social sciences to physics. The question really revolves around a question of your values (and these are not holy things, go out there and question your own values you peasant).

While I am more attracted to becoming an expert/knowledgeable in 1–3 fields now (after finishing a Liberal Arts and Sciences degree), I think that people should be aware of how little you can get in terms of insights and knowledge from the last 30% in comparison with the tremendous marginal increase in value of the first 70% of a couple of other disciplines in the same period of time and roughly the same intensity.

At any rate, It is perhaps something to consider.

I have written these thoughts in one go and I expect no nitpicking. I hope it hits the 70% mark of being useful/entertaining/good, because I am not motivated to hone it at the cost of my energy I can put in other things.



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