(crossposted from my blog)

In Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, there's a notion of being "good at the basics", as opposed to "being good by knowing advanced techniques". How you want to be good is a question of personal preference, but the idea is that these are the two ways, and most people do one or the other.

I think this is a concept that applies outside of BJJ, and one that's useful if you're trying to learn a field, but you're not sure how to approach it.

I'll take physics as an example, because that is a field where I would like to be good at the basics. The "basics" of physics would be things that you learn in high school, while "advanced" stuff would be what you would learn in university, maybe at a graduate level. (There's probably other ways of separating the basics from the advanced topics.)

You may roughly remember some of the simple formulas that you have learned in class during high school, you may orient yourself through a textbook problem, you may perform some basic calculations. You sorta know the basics. But how does it look like when you're good at the basics?

It might mean that you know the equations by heart, that you've really internalized their meaning.

It might also mean that you know the quantities or values for things around you. You can correctly approximate how much things weigh, how fast they move, or what their kinetic and potential energy is.

You can approximate how much joules of energy an apple contains, or how much energy hits a m2 of the Earth's surface on a sunny day. You have a good feeling for how much compressive stress a piece of concrete can withstand, and you can quickly and accurately calculate what the kinetic energy is of a car that you're driving in. You can also quickly convert between different units, and compare the quantities of different things.

Being really good at the basics of physics in this way requires a sort of embodied understanding. It requires a level of "closeness" to the subject matter that allows you to apply this knowledge to the world around you, to the extent that you start seeing the world around you in terms of that subject. You take a walk outside and you can't help but notice the physics of it all.

You'll notice that being "good at the basics" is actually a linguistic misdirection. This type of understanding is drastically different from the level of understanding you have after high school, yet both refer to the "basics". If you are really good at the basics, you are in fact an expert - an expert in the basics. The word "basics" here hides a huge amount of complexity, or time and effort.

Why be good at the basics (as opposed to the advanced stuff)? These things sometimes depend on the field, but mostly because being good at the advanced stuff will be required for a career in that particular field, but useless for other goals. I, for example, have no ambition to become a physicist but I do have an ambition to closely understand the world around me, and to make accurate estimates and good decisions. For me, being really good at the basics of physics is much more important than being good at some advanced thing within physics.

There are other fields where you can notice the two ways of being good at them. Writing is one of those fields. "Being really good at the basics" in writing looks like really plain and simple language that's easy to understand. By being good at the basics, you're actually hiding complexity. It's not like there is no complexity involved, it's just hidden from the reader. The reader is served a simple and clear text, but the complexity was in the process, from developing clear thinking about a topic, to the editing process that tries to simplify the resulting text. Compare this to being good at writing, but not in this basic sense: writers using interesting and innovative metaphors, or having a really rich vocabulary.

In cooking, there's a notion of being good at the basics as well. For example, compare a cook who has perfected the bowl of rice vs. a cook who uses espuma or sous vide cooking.

In drumming, there's that notion as well. For example, compare a drummer who has perfected a "simple" 4/4 funk groove using just the bass drum, snare and hi-hat vs. a drummer who uses a full set to play some super advanced polyrhythm.

Ultimately, choosing the strategy for how to be good at something is a matter of personal preference, and you may have different preferences depending on the field. As time passes, I find myself more interested in developing expertise in the basics in whatever I do. It often seems much more applicable outside of the narrow domain it belongs to, and it always seems to require fewer prerequisites. So my advice, if you need it, would be: "if you want to learn X, and you're not sure what exactly to learn, try learning the basics really well".

New Comment
1 comment, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

There are other fields where you can notice the two ways of being good at them. Writing is one of those fields. "Being really good at the basics" in writing looks like really plain and simple language that's easy to understand.

To me, that feels like it doesn't address well the question of what basics happen to be in writing.

Using a keyboard is a basic for writers but it has nothing to do with how the resulting text looks like.