The first time a remark is made it is new, the second time it starts to sound profound, and by the third time, it starts to flirt with banality. One of such common remarks my father often made was "All knowledge is combinatorial". The remark roamed around in our house first as a guest, then as a friend, and later as an uninteresting stranger who ended up staying forever. Yet as I gradually grew up, I developed an appreciation of how deeply profound the remark actually is.
This is what it means according to me:
Pieces of knowledge do not live independently of each other. And if you dive deep, you will see reflections of the same pieces of knowledge coming up at different places in different forms. Hence, always be curious like a child, sometimes simple things have very deep meaning into them.
Observing the similarities
At age 19, I was sitting in a class on Operating Systems learning about various ways of queuing jobs for a processor. At any given time in a computer, a number of jobs are waiting to be processed in an efficient manner so that the user is able to comfortably do multiple things together. One way was to have a round-robin architecture where all jobs get a portion of the processor's time in rotation, another way was to allocate processor time to the shortest job first. I suddenly realized that all the concepts that we were learning had stark parallels with the management of vehicle traffic on roads. Round robin architecture was analogous to red lights, and Multi-core processors are analogous to multilane highways. If you read the concepts of starvations and deadlocks in processor queues you will realize that you have often been starved or deadlocked in traffic as well.
If you observe deeply, you often realize that things from very different domains in life are often connected. It almost seems that there are meta-patterns governing the causality of nature and underlying concepts render themselves in different incarnations in different contexts.
Meta-patterns of knowledge
These meta-patterns are valuable because they give us lenses to see the world. Something that repeats itself in multiple places is often applicable to many other places as well. These meta-patterns are valuable because they reveal new and creative solutions when ported into a different context where they fit.
Meta-patterns are often born out of meta-analysis. The study and articulation of these meta-patterns that can explain a wide variety of things are at the heart of any research. Picking up a meta-pattern in one domain and applying it to another successfully is creativity. And finally, such cross-domain applications often lead to the long and winding road to innovation.
Once you have the curiosity to look around for these meta-patterns, a crucial thing to know is that all meta-patterns break in some context or the other. The next thing to develop is the courage to look out for the limitations of your meta-patterns.
Truth is often like a curved line. All meta-patterns are like approximations of truth made out of pieces of straight lines.
Diving into the sea of knowledge
Not a single word you read will ever be useless. Not a single conversation you have will ever be invaluable. And lastly, not a single question you ask will ever be absurd. Step out into the world with a purposeless curiosity to know more things. You never know the next conversation you have might reveal a new meta pattern of life, or validate/refute an existing meta-pattern you have.
There is a simple litmus test for traversing the sea of knowledge. If you read and it makes you realize that you know lesser than you thought about the world, you are treading in the right direction. If you read, and start to feel that you know most of the things in the topic, then something is off. The sea of knowledge never ends in any direction. It goes on infinitely into deeper and finer details.
Curiosity is a wonderful thing to have. Curiosity has the power to light up the world, light up conversations and light up the path into the deepest corers of the sea of knowledge.