In March 2016 there was a flurry of news about the ancient Eastern board game, Go. For years Go had been the Holy Grail for programmers writing game-playing Artificial Intelligence, and Google claimed to have finally created a program capable of beating the best human players in the world.
Despite my utter lack of knowledge about Go, I started watching the match coverage, as Google’s new AI took on human champion Lee Sedol. To my surprise, each game was about five hours long (!). Worse, despite the game being so simple – just black stones and white stones – the commentary was nearly incomprehensible to me.
To my untrained eye, all moves appeared to be virtually random. But, somehow, after each move the commentator explained how this new piece was ‘clearly’ a genius setup for some complex sequence. And he was nearly always right!
The sheer depth of his knowledge meant he could look at a Go board and where I saw a bunch of scattered black and white stones, he saw the complete state of the game along with the possible permutations of moves to come.
For a couple of weeks, I was mildly obsessed with Go. And this got me thinking about depth versus breadth.
We treat depth and breadth as opposites
When it comes to our abilities, it feels as if we have two options. We can either spend our time developing depth in one particular skill or interest – perhaps becoming a 9-dan player of Go, a master musician, the best software developer. Or we can spend our time becoming quite good – but presumably less good – across many diverse activities.
Unless we discover a way to be in two places at once (or a Time-Turner!), we can only put so many hours into each passion. In a quasi-mathematical sense, we get a set number of “PassionHours” in our lifetime. How do we choose to spend them?
Whenever I think about questions like this one, I like to check that I’m actually thinking and not simply repeating things I’ve heard before. So, let me check my assumptions.
First, is it even true?
Well, short of a cure for mortality, it seems undeniable that we get a limited amount of time to live, and that the more time we spend on something, the better we get at it. It’s hard to argue with either of those.
Next, does it matter?
This is a little more debatable. It depends entirely on our personal goals. If I want to be a 9-dan Go player, I probably don’t also have time to represent England at cricket, write the definitive textbook on computer science, while also becoming a leading neurosurgeon. There just aren’t enough PassionHours in a lifetime.
However, if I dial down my ambitions in each sphere – perhaps I’d like to have a passing knowing of Go, occasionally play cricket, code the odd website, and… well, probably not take up brain surgery as a hobby, let’s be honest… this seems totally possible. This sort of allocation of my time is, at least, plausible.
But there’s a final question to explore: is there another way to look at it?
And this is where it gets interesting.
Measurement depends on perspective
This is a little subtle, but how we describe our depth in any given activity depends on where we draw the boundary to define that activity in the first place.
Let me explain. We look at every activity and sort it into pre-defined categories: this one is farming, that one is whistling, while that other one is making paper airplanes.
But those activities aren’t facts of nature. They’re arbitrary. Whistling-while-making-paper-airplanes is a perfectly legitimate category of its own. It doesn’t arrive pre-defined in our culture, but it is a plausible mental category for an activity.
And once a category exists in our minds, we can start developing depth in this new category. Perhaps the best paper-airplane-maker in the world sucks at doing it while whistling. They put all their PassionHours into only the paper part of it, the fools!
I realize that this is a silly and contrived example. But when we think about depth, we automatically measure ourselves in pre-defined categories – usually those that we picked up from the education system or the standard narrative of what’s “important.”
We don’t all have the desire to go deeply into a pre-defined category. But we may have the desire to create our own category – a broader category – and to find depth in there.
If we measure ourselves only by pre-defined categories then we might appear shallower than we are. This is a trap I see multipods fall into all the time: judging ourselves harshly for a perceived lack of depth, but not stopping to consider whether the categories in which we’re measuring ourselves have any meaning in the context of our lives.
Redrawing the boundaries of measurement around the exact same life experience might reveal real depth in a category we’ve not considered:
Measuring our abilities only in separate categories might make it look like they don’t reach very high. But stacking them up to find the SUM of our abilities reveals real depth in the combined category.
This isn’t a trick or illusion. Perhaps it seems silly to combine things that are separate, but if nobody combined categories then books about the links between maths and music would never exist.
And what other combinations are still untouched by human imagination?
Nobody – not even the world’s greatest obsessive – puts 100% of their PassionHours into any one thing.
So, if we use “maximum depth in a pre-defined category” as our measuring stick, we’re always going to fall short of having as much depth as we “should.”
But if our measuring stick is the sum of all our passions, we might find that we are very deep in an interesting new category we are creating for ourselves.
Do you ever worry about the depth of your knowledge? In which combined categories do you have a real depth of knowledge?