Understand How It Works

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was from my grandfather. He didn't visit very often and conversation always felt more like an ice breaker than the result of any genuine interest. We'd talk about how school was going and what I wanted to be when I was older, and after a while he would often share some lesson he'd learnt that he thought was useful to me. On the occasion I remember best, he said:

Never just remember how to do something, understand how it works.

I remember thinking to myself that this was great advice. I didn't truly know at the time whether it was or it wasn't, but I looked up to him and so I let that little saying stay with me as I grew up.

As it turns out it was probably one of the best pieces of advice I ever got, and the more I think about it the more I realise that it has shaped the way I think about things.

For a long time I didn't know exactly why I preferred simpler things over more complex things. I assumed it was because I could understand simpler things faster. Later I realised that it's not about understanding faster (i.e. things being easier to understand), it's about the power and the confidence you get from knowing that you do in fact understand something fully. The more complex something is the harder it is to reach that level of confidence.

If you simply remember how to do something, then all you can do is use it the same way over and over, but if you understand how it works, you can reason about it. Once you can reason about something in your mind you can contemplate why it is the way it is, you can apply your entire creative mind to making the most of it, and you can implement and question improvement – you own it intellectually.

The trouble with aiming to understand things completely is that it's hard and it takes time, even for simple things. You have to ask questions at every level, you have to think like the person who made it, and sometimes there'll be nobody to answer your questions – you'll have to work out the answers on your own.

But as a wise man once said:

Any fool can know. The point is to understand. – Albert Einstein