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How to Understand Things

Principles for actually understanding things



  • It’s so easy to think you understand something, when you actually don’t;
  • Intelligent people simply aren’t willing to accept answers they don’t understand.

Key Principles

  • Go slow. Read slowly, think slowly, really spend time pondering the thing;
  • Start by thinking about the question yourself before reading a bunch of stuff about it;
  • There is an energy component—thinking hard takes effort;
  • Don’t be willing to accept answers that you don’t understand;
  • Attack problems from multiple angles and test your own understanding;
  • Be sure that the results of a problem are worth the demanding thinking required;
  • Visualise in three dimensions to use as a conceptual ‘hook’;
  • Be unafraid to look stupid and ask basic questions until you get it right;
  • Start by thinking about a question yourself before reading a bunch of stuff about it;
  • Read information-dense sources with high amounts of detail and facts, and then reason up from those facts;
  • When in doubt, go closer.


  • I think about this idea mostly in the context of my career; it can be easy to take the ‘answer’ from previous projects but what’s far more important is understanding why a certain thickness of rock protection has been selected, why the pavement is a certain material and why the batter slopes are 1 in 3. There is an underlying process in all engineering projects and being good at my job means diving deep until I understand the reasoning behind each decision.