Tim Urban, and his Wait But Why blog, has been a huge inspiration to me both as a writer and as a curious person. He’s probably appeared in this newsletter more than anyone else — on relationships, on politics, and on the future of neurotechnology.
In a fascinating 2018 interview, Tim shares how he distills and presents complex ideas so they’re rich and resonant for others. He introduces his personal taxonomy of complexity and deconstructs his process for unravelling the different types.
“When thinking of an idea that’s hard to understand, it’s tempting to think of complexity in a singular way. Instead consider it in three distinct forms: complexity as gathering, complexity as dusting, and complexity as pattern-matching.”
What’s different is the type and proportion of effort needed to crack the case — knowing that ratio can help you better tackle complex ideas.
1. Complexity as gathering
These are ideas that aren’t particularly difficult to explain, but require a lot of up-front research and learning to make sense of.
It takes Urban an average of 160 hours to learn everything he needs to learn about a topic to write a post. Urban knows he’s lucky if a reader will spend two hours reading his post, so his challenge is to present complex topics in a way that readers can learn 80x faster than he did.
The key skill is the ability to find the relevant material and to synthesize it in a concise and approachable way. The challenge is to guide your readers through the information and engage them well enough that they can still explain the idea two weeks later.
An example is Urban’s Neuralink post, Elon Musk’s brain-computer interface venture.
2. Complexity as dusting
These are ideas that are more revealed than learned. It’s about finding simple yet powerful concepts that aren’t obvious at first glance. A great example is Urban’s cook versus chef concept.
The challenge here is to explain the idea in a way that people not only understand it, but know how to apply it in different contexts. I love this quote from Tim:
If you’ve explained it, you've just done step one of 20. The next 19 steps are the hard part, which is getting to a place where people deeply internalize the concept in the different ways that it manifests in life — and that they have words that they can assign to it and visuals so they can really envision the concept. To me, it's getting that concept deep into someone's psyche — not just into their understanding, but into their intuition.
3. Complexity as pattern-matching (and pattern-resisting)
These are ideas that share characteristics with both the first two types of complexity. They require intensive up-front research and learning as well as looking out for the underlying patterns that others don’t notice.
The challenge is “assigning each new bit of information to a pattern and then — and only then — deciding if that pattern should be included or resisted”. In other words, this class of complexity often comes with preset patterns accepted as the status quo. It’s important to start from first principles and move past the usual approach.
The best example is Urban’s The Story of Us. He spent three years working on a new metaphorical language we can use to think and talk about our societies and its people.
For each type of complexity, there’s a different ratio of effort needed to make sense of the idea versus figuring out how to explain the idea.
In the rest of the article, Tim expands on the questions to ask and tactics to consider as you’re thinking through how to explain a complex idea. Really fantastic read!
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