As humans we tend to think in boxes. There’s a box with knowledge about how to write, a box that informs us about how to edit the work, and one about publishing and promoting. We think of each of these boxes as independent areas of expertise. But they’re not independent. The boxes we construct are usually interconnected and knowledge in one domain is useful in another. For example, writing and the skill of story telling is tremendously useful when it comes to promoting your work as well.

Once you become aware of this peculiarity of human thinking you see it everywhere. All science is structured according to different domains. There are biology, religion, philosophy, business, etc. but these fields are constructed by us. We define where biology ends and chemistry starts. It helps us to categorize and structure the world as we know it.

This type of thinking can be useful to make sense of the vast knowledge that’s out there. Because the world isn’t neatly arranged in unrelated fields of expertise, it’s difficult to not feel overwhelmed by the incredible complexity. Seeing it as a collection of boxes helps us to specialize and focus on one. It helps us to put our logical minds to work and make sense of complicated and abstract concepts. But domain dependent thinking also limits us. The world is, as a matter of fact, interconnected and interrelated. This means that many of the same principles are applicable in a variety of domains.

Only applying the theory of evolution to the sphere of biology makes you miss out on its application in machine learning. Thinking only about economic theory when investing in the stock market will put you at risk to the irrationality of human behavior, which is better explored in psychology.

We are strongly affected by this concept of domain dependence. This cognitive flaw makes you unaware of the alternative applications of knowledge that you’ve learned. If this way of thinking could be overcome, you would benefit in three main ways:

  • You will become more knowledgeable without learning more, because your existing knowledge becomes scalable in its applicability.
  • You practice your creativity and lateral thinking by increasing your awareness about the interrelations of what you learn.
  • You become open to opportunities others miss, because you ask yourself how a piece of knowledge relates to things outside its immediate application.

Overcoming domain dependence

We do recognize the importance of overcoming domain dependence. That’s why, besides the increasing specialization, we also value skills such as “creativity”, “thinking outside the box”, and “lateral thinking” more and more. These skills are essentially ways of thinking that go beyond the classical domain dependent conditioning.

I’ve found the combination of broad knowledge acquisition and actively asking specific questions to be a great way to overcome domain dependence.

First, many stick to their domain when they acquire new knowledge. Business people go to business books for advice and nutritionists read papers about their topic. This is obviously important and a good way to acquire relevant knowledge, however, it’s also what everyone else does. Great ideas often come from taking a concept from one field and applying it to another. Hence, read something from a completely unrelated topic once every while. Broaden your knowledge base so that you have more concepts and ways of thinking to draw from.

The second step then, is to connect the various fields. This is best done by asking specific questions. Here are a few examples of questions that I found helpful:

  • How does reading a biography of the polar explorer Ernest Shackleton help me become a better project manager?
  • How does practicing martial arts help me with learning math?
  • How can the concept of hormesis be applied in corporate organization and management?

The goal of these questions is to take something you learned in an unrelated field and force yourself to connect it with another. You won’t always come up with something revolutionary every time. And often it might prove almost impossible to relate the two, but this is the point. Forcing yourself to think this way consistently will make it easier over time until it becomes second nature.