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Insights from Bart

Black Box Boundary

/ 10 min read

The Internet is an amazing place. Its gravity pulls us towards an enormous amount of information pushed by people from the entire world. It is basically unbelievable that the largest and constantly updated source of ideas is at the same time the most accessible to any person. As a result, creation and growth have never been as simple as it is now; today you can build and learn anything from anywhere without any permission.

Each of us can create, so we do. Trying to feel the market trends and find a niche for ourselves, we transform our knowledge into materials that we make available in various ways and in many forms. Some of us do it publicly; writing a blog, activity in media threads and forums, contributing to open source. Others try to sell their experience through digital products shipped on already known platforms or trying to build their own service from scratch. And of course, this is great; if we wanted a world of equal career opportunities for all of us, here we are. “I don’t know how” cannot be an excuse anymore.

Personally, I am very optimistic and grateful for the opportunities offered by the Internet and technology itself. However, for some time now I have been increasingly critical of the resources available on the web. In fact, it’s not due to poor-quality materials; the web market is large and you can always find something valuable. It’s because, once you know what’s going on in your niche, you become picky.

Golder Hammer

I perfectly remember my first months of self-study programming. It starts from the beginner-friendly book about basics concepts; loops, statements, variables, and functions. To be honest, it wasn’t easy as I thought; for a long time, I wondered if this was really something for me. But as I get the foundation, I was starting to enjoy writing simple applications based on knowledge from YouTube channels and other platforms. Over time, I was quickly gaining confidence because I could see the results; working software written by myself. Absorbed by the enormity of possibilities, I learned more and more demanding technologies and created more advanced programs. I felt that I was really good at it. That I knew even more than just the basics of each tool in my tech stack. Well, today I know I’ve been in this hot hustle mode where perceived skills and opportunities are much higher than they really are. This illusion vanished once I started working as a software developer. When I was finally dealing with reality; business problems and enterprise application codebase.

Of course, I realized before that working on a professional application for clients will be much more demanding than a hobby project developed after hours. But I never would have thought that my foundations were so fragile and vague. I thought that all the courses & books I have completed take me step by step through the basic axioms so that I can master them as time goes by and my experience grows. I couldn’t be more wrong.

Basically, most of the courses we can find, whether they are called bootcamp, masterclass, zero to hero, beginner to master, follow these [N] easy steps, best way to do [Y], quit your full-time job and become an entrepreneur or master [X], are just simplified introductions. The first step to catching on to something. Because you cannot learn something comprehensively in just a few, several dozen hours after completing a course or reading two books. The results achieved through effort and frustration while working on real problems cannot be replaced by any of them, no matter what.

And maybe I’ll be too rough here, but this is a trend of creating learning materials which I would like to call a hammer production line. We just learn stuff, but without being aware of the necessity to explore a freshly learned subject with an open mind. Not knowing how to ask questions on your own, where to drill down and how it is all connected to other domains, everyone ends up with the same hammer to drive any type of nail. The learning process imitates a todo list with checkboxes to mark when some piece of content was consumed - well done; new skill acquired.

Well, this can be generally fine and even expected at the beginning. If there are popular and tested many times methods of learning something at the basic level we should definitely try it out. But at some point, everyone finally gets to the point where new knowledge and solutions for more advanced problems will no longer exist in a course-like form. And to move forward, we will have to reach for less processed and carefree materials: proven books, documentations, open-minded conversations, experience with real-life projects.

The issue can appear when this tutorial-guided tour is just not enough. When expectations increase, problems get really complicated and sticking with courses at least slows you down. And this is a time when, in your learning process, you need to go into the wild driven by curiosity.

Boxed Thinking

Some time ago I decided to buy a design course online. This topic was no longer strange to me then, but the positive reviews and the amount of wisdom learned from the author’s public materials pushed me to buy. And basically, he did not share the knowledge as a processed and truncated chunk of information taken from other resources that anyone could understand in a different way depending on the context. He shared his mental model developed through reflections based on many years of experience. The course was not long, but its simplicity in conveying information and compression meant that I learned more from it than from many other sources I have scoured.

I noticed, that most valuable materials I have learned on the Internet are those:

  • conveying the understanding and the application of skills in practice without focusing on one particular case;
  • showing knowledge as maluable mental models which can be mixed together and used in many cases;
  • blurring the boundaries between different fields so that acquired wisdom can flows easily from one topic to another;
  • causes you to be systematically frozen and makes you think.

And of course, I can understand that not everyone has to be a teacher on a “mission”. There is nothing wrong with being just a proxy and transferring his knowledge through simplification into other’s minds. Because, at least in the short run, you don’t have to understand everything to be able to do things. But following this path too long leads to the essential side effect that may not be entirely desirable. Something that misled me for quite a long time. I would like to call it the Black Box Boundary effect. By relying on so-called tutorials / courses for too long, you limit your understanding to learned simplifications. Your boxed (wrong) mental model shrinks your ability to dive deeper and deal with complexity.

To make it a little clearer, I’ll start with a quote from the book The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman about the system image:

“The design model is the designer’s conceptual model. The user’s model is the mental model developed through interaction with the system. The system image results from the physical structure that has been built (including documentation, instructions, and labels). The designer expects the user’s model to be identical to the design model. But the designer doesn’t talk directly with the user—all communication takes place through the system image. If the system image does not make the design model clear and consistent, then the user will end up with the wrong mental model.” - Don Norman, The Design of Everyday Things

When we learn, we don’t only get an idea of how to make things or how something works. We also build in our head a mental model conveyed by the systemic image shown in the materials we consume. If our source of knowledge is based on simplifications and particular use cases, it’s easy to get under the illusion that what we’ve learned is complete and accurate. We assume that we have reached the root of understanding of the topic under study. We begin to draw a line between what we already know and what seems to us to be part of an external system that we no longer need to understand.

Overconfidence Bias

”Any sufficient advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” - Isaac Asimov

Very often, the problem space that we are facing is complex and contains a huge amount of details. So basically, to be able to deal with it, it’s definitely fine to oversimplify the model of how something works.

The problem, however, arises when we start to think of our simplified model as the reality. We lock ourselves in a well-known and comfortable black box, thinking that outside complexity is out of the scope. It’s just the way it is and is beyond dispute. Or it’s reserved for other types of specialists.

As the result, we start taking low-level details for granted.

The main issue is that if we ignore low-level details, it’s hard to understand WHY something works. And because WHY something works is not obvious, we need to learn HOW something works on each use case. That’s why I think that relying on simplifications too long paradoxically slows people down over time.

Dancing between disciplines

I will probably not surprise anyone if I say that today’s methods of teaching at schools are at least not the best. I already write a little bit about it here. Basically, there are many biases out there, but one thing is crucial for the context of this post.

Generally, schools should prepare us for the future, but paradoxically, right from the beginning, they teach us the wrong model of how the world is constructed. The rigid division into classes confirmed my belief that the world consists of clearly separated disciplines. The problem is that it’s not true. That reality is much more complex and convoluted. And I noticed inside my head that misleading perception while stumbling across an amazing diagram visualizes the different fields o and how they are connected to each other. This scheme describes interdisciplinarity from a perspective of User Experience, however, personally, I see it as a bit more generic. This model of relations between different domains can be applied in any case.

What I learned from this is that each field is not an individual black box. Rather, it is a part of a bigger ecosystem where each organism (field) is in symbiosis with the other. And of course, I still think that I should pick a niche that I am mainly interested in, but I do not want to completely ignore the “outside world”. Because I believe that literally every domain, no matter if it has to do with what interests me or not, has a promise for me to learn something useful and open up new opportunities. Instead of being blindly obsessed with my box, I’m trying to be one foot outside of it.

”Even today, at a time when specialization is growing as never before, there are wide-eyed people who live up to the words of Arnold Toynbee that “no tool is universal. There is no key that will open all doors.” Instead of wielding a single tool, they’ve amassed an entire shed of theirs and now show the power of long-range in a hyper-specialized world.” - David J. Epstein, Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World

The more you read, the less you know, they say. And although it’s just an anecdote, it has a moral about the essence of what learning is. Namely, when we read, listen or watch something, often there is much more than just what we want to hear. Everywhere are topics beyond the scope of our research. So I believe what we need to do is feed our curiosity and systematically challenge ourselves to dive into unknown fields at least a bit. Because people who are better, in the end, are usually curious in the beginning.