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The Knowledge Staircase
Everyday you climb up the steps of a knowledge staircase. Are you climbing up, or just walking up an escalator that is going down?
Imagine you are standing in front of a long, winding staircase with infinite steps.
Each staircase contains knowledge related to a particular field.
Each step and each level is adorned with ever more complex knowledge.
There are an infinite number of such staircases.
You can easily switch staircases but can climb only one at a time.
On some staircases, you are at the top;
in some, you are at the bottom;
in the rest, you are somewhere in the middle.
You can see some staircases, others are invisible to you (yet visible to others)
Climbing up the knowledge staircase to uncover what lies beyond is a challenge. To climb up, you need focus, effort, and time. You have to struggle and figure out how to climb up yourself. Others can tell you how to climb up, but you must climb yourself.
There are infinite staircases, which means you will likely be at the bottom of most staircases, save a few, which you have spent years climbing.
You will often encounter new ideas as you climb up the staircases.
You climb one step on the knowledge staircase every time you see, understand, and learn something new.
There are 5 things I hope you can take away from this essay
Choose the staircases you want to climb
Understand who can help you climb up
Open your mind to learning from everyone
Ascend the highest levels and beyond on your own
Why you should share your knowledge with everyone
Choose the staircases you want to climb.
While there are infinite knowledge staircases, most of them are not helpful to you.
Some staircases are more straightforward to climb than others. You don't need to work too hard to climb them.
You must choose the staircases you want to climb because climbing the wrong staircases has a price.
You can only climb one staircase at a time.
Climbing the wrong staircase means not climbing the ones that will actually help you live the life you want.
The most problematic staircases are escalators that are going down.
You can spend an eternity climbing them, thinking you are climbing up while staying stuck at the same place.
Algorithmic feeds on any social network are the best example of these escalators. While they can be helpful if used sparingly, more often than not, they can hook you into climbing a downward escalator.
How do you decide which staircases to climb?
Identify the people that can help you climb up
Wherever you're standing, people are standing above you, and people are standing below you.
People on higher levels can help you climb much faster. But it depends on how skilled they are at teaching people on lower levels.
If they stand at the top of the staircase and explain, the beginner will not comprehend as they can’t see the intermediate steps required to get up to that level.
If you talk to people at the top of their game, their advice may seem very generic, very complex, or just right depending on the level they are explaining it from. Most advice will only make complete sense once you've climbed the required steps2.
This explains why not all experts in their fields can be great teachers.
The skills required to teach are different. The approach is different.
The best teachers will estimate the beginner's level, get down to that level, start from there and slowly lift the veil of the unknown.
These are the people who will help you climb up.
You can learn from everyone
You can only see the steps below you after you are at a certain level. Just because you've climbed higher levels does not mean you can see everything below you.
You can see a part of the knowledge below you.
Knowledge staircases are enormous and amorphous; you will always find new knowledge on different sides of the staircase or if you visit the same steps at different times in your life.
If you've only climbed the stairs from the east side, you will not know what lies on the west side if you haven't taken that path up. If you're always facing the inner side, you won't know what lies on the outside side.
This is why people on similar or lower levels can also teach you many new things.
They may be climbing the same staircase from another side or at a different time, or climbing an entirely different staircase.
Remember, there are an infinite number of staircases. Ideas from a different staircase mi=ght inspire ideas for the stairs you're climbing that you otherwise would not have thought of.
This means that it's possible to learn something from everyone. Even if they are lower down on your staircase (they may be higher up on others).
Ascend the highest levels and beyond on your own
Whichever level you are on, you can see some of the steps below. They contain knowledge that lifted you to your current level.
But above you, you can barely see a couple of levels, maybe a blurry, foggy view. Sometimes, nothing at all.
This depends on the staircase you're climbing.
If it's an unchanging one that others have climbed many times before, you'll see much farther ahead by learning from people than if you're exploring (or constructing) an entirely new staircase, e.g., a pathless path h/t
If you've spent enough time on a particular staircase, sooner or later, you will reach a stage where neither you, nor anyone else, can see any steps ahead.
Congratulations, you've reached the edge of knowledge in that domain.
Is that the end of that staircase? Unlikely.
Every step you take further will require tinkering and exploration that you must do on your own.
No one has explored it before.
You might find a dead end, or you might find an elevator that takes you to ever newer heights. You will likely have to invent new way to climb up.
You'll only know by figuring it out on your own.
Share ideas from your staircase and help others climb up
There are always people above you and below you on the knowledge staircases.
This is one of the best reasons to share your ideas with the world. Especially those that you think are obvious. They may be evident to you, from your place in your knowledge staircase, but the same ideas may be profound for others.
This is why I love Twitter. You can observe ideas and how people react to them. You realize many ideas seem obvious to you but profound to others (and vice versa).
People encountering your unique ideas for the first time will be delighted to have your help in climbing up to a higher level. Especially if you’re a trailblazer.
There is another benefit of sharing your knowledge openly - sharing knowledge only increases it.
When you share ideas, you get feedback. Remember from the previous section: You can learn from people at all levels of the knowledge staircase.
Real-time, real-world feedback is one of the best ways to identify the holes in your steps, rectify them, and climb ever higher on the knowledge staircases.
Special Thanks to Nimo for feedback on drafts. Thanks to Seth Godin, Derek Sivers, Shane Parrish and Samyak Pandya for inspiration on improving the ideas in this essay.
Derek Sivers has solved some critical decision-making conundrums with his posts.
This is only applicable if you are an absolute beginner. For everything else, it is possible the advice may not apply to your situation, your context, your time etc.