Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Communicating Complex Ideas

I love Wait But Why.

Well-researched. Well-written. Random topics.

Tim Urban writes about whatever catches his fancy and uses his blog as an opportunity to research whatever catches his fancy.

In an interview with First Round – Urban talks about how he approaches complex ideas.


Urban’s first step is to place the topic in his taxonomy of complex ideas.  Complex ideas, Urban claims, fall into one of 3 types.

Complexity as Gathering – Find all the material on a topic. The work is in making sure you have enough material to digest a topic and digest it well enough so that you can explain it to others.  It’s front-loaded and time-consuming. Once you have enough information and have digested it sufficiently, you can create a structure and narrative to make that topic easier for others to digest.

Urban’s example of this is his research on Elon Musk’s Neuralink project. “The mind-bending bigness of Neuralink’s mission, combined with the labyrinth of impossible complexity that is the human brain, made this the hardest set of concepts yet to fully wrap my head around — but it also made it the most exhilarating when, with enough time spent zoomed on both ends, it all finally clicked.”

Complexity as Dusting – Urban sees dusting much like an archeologist brushes the dust off ancient artifacts.  It’s a matter of digging beneath an idea and allowing the revelation of truth.  The idea unlocks other complex ideas. It’s about finding the first principle, then applying the idea elsewhere.

Urban’s example of Complexity as Dusting is the difference between a cook and a chef.  A cook, Urban explains, follows recipes.  A chef creates recipes.  “If you start looking for it, you’ll see the chef/cook thing happening everywhere. ”

Complexity as Pattern-Matching (or Pattern-Resistance) – The search for patterns, then the determination as to whether that pattern should be matched or resisted.  “It’s a slog throughout,” Urban notes.

Urban is currently researching democracy and tyranny. “With something like society, it’s going to take me forever because it’s going to be me trying to find the pattern — the honest pattern — in a whole mess of analog complexity and uniqueness. It’s hard to do without being reckless because you can carelessly find patterns and there’s already a bunch of preset patterns set by political rules and tribes,” says Urban.  Then it is a matter of figuring out how to share those findings. People come to many sensitive topics with pre-set ideas of what the “reality” is.  Kudos to Urban for tackling sensitive topics like this.

I wish I had this taxonomy 30-some-odd years ago when I was starting college.


Urban’s second step is defining his audience.   Both where they are and where he wants them to end up.

Urban’s audience for Wait But Why is someone who has heard of an idea, but knows nothing about it.

His goal – to get them to where they can at least answer a layman’s question and form an intelligent opinion.

As with any communication (or activity, really), it’s good to know where your audience is and where you want them to wind up.


Urban’s final step is to write in a way your audience understands.

Provide the shortcut to understanding so that your audience does not have to go through all of the efforts you just made.

Urban, to me, is the classic example of the experienced guide.

They have done all the work (repeatedly) and made all of the mistakes so you don’t have to.

Essentially, what Urban is trying to do is flatten the down-slope of the learning curve for his readers.

He does this through simplification, storytelling, humor, and crude, yet elegantly explanatory, pictures.


When I was leading discussion sessions at both Georgia and Kentucky, I used to tell the students, “If you can’t explain it to a 3rd grader, you don’t understand it.”

It’s easy to get too separated from the experience of the beginner as an expert.

It’s tempting to show off knowledge and our own expertise.

I’ve fallen into both of those traps more times than I can count.

Urban, in that First Round interview, has (once again) broken down the research and writing process elegantly.

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