These days we’re constantly told we should be studying smart and don’t sweat the details. However, I believe some considerations are in order if we are to put this approach into a proficuous perspective.
What studying smart is and what is not
To start with, no matter what gurus keep saying, research shows that effective study requires both an important amount of time and notable effort.
In fact, to make sure that what you’re studying sinks in — that’s to say that it actually rearranges your neural patterns — you have to persuade your super lazy brain that the thing you’re trying to master is damn important.
And to do so you can’t just tell your brain it’s so. Instead, you must go about the thing you want to learn day after day after day. You must study it. You must practice it. You must analyze it. You must explain it to somebody. Not only that, while doing so you also must get out of your comfort zone. Otherwise, for all the time you devote to it, your brain will end up classifying the object of your attention just like some sort of a pastime. And mastery will remain a dream.
In short, studying smart means you shouldn’t be wasting time in activities that aren’t really useful, and that you approach what you’re studying on a need-only-basis and use a multi-modality approach. Other than that, studying smart is nonsense.
In fact, no matter what it is you’re studying, sooner rather than later you will need to know a lot of details. And the reason is simple. The more you know, the more you’re able to see the significance of those that at first sight seemed just insignificant and boring details.
If you’re still a bit skeptical you can think of a statue, a famous one, like the “the Piety” by Michelangelo Buonarroti. How would you react if someone decided to chip away from it a small fragment of marble, and once found out, shrugging, they dismissed the fact saying: “What the hell! It was just a minuscule fragment. Let me be!”
Sure, you can tell me all day long that in a masterpiece every detail counts — and that as a result there’s no such a thing as an insignificant detail. I would agree with you. But then I would also tell you that by the same token, details in general are a suspicious category. A category of objects that is the result of our limited ability to process sensory inputs, and consequently of our necessity to choose the ones to focus on.
And this act of choosing is extremely subjective — the details I tend to note and remember may have nothing to do with the ones you tend to notice and remember.
For example, months ago I met a friend of mine I hadn’t seen since when we went to school together, and he told me about a story I had told him all those years ago — something I had forgotten. Something that even when he told me, I couldn’t remember. I mean, I remembered the occasion and the place, but not the story!
So, when you’re starting out it makes sense to focus on the basic principles of whatever it is you’re trying to master. But you should be aware that soon you’ll have to delve with a wagonload of details.
Sure, for someone who wants to become a writer this perspective could seem terrifying. After all, as Mark Twain remarked, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
However, considering the feeling of accomplishment you get when you finish a work and you know you’ve said what you had to say — you’d better start thinking of those details like a full orchestra waiting for its director.