How to find a path into a new domain

When I was about 3 or 4, I took classes at a Yamaha music school. According to my mother, after the school closed, I spent months asking when I could go back. As a child, I didn’t have another chance to learn an instrument. While it is probably a good thing that the world was spared my lack of innate musicality, I nonetheless never lost my desire to have a closer relationship with music. When a local music shop offered ukulele workshops a couple of years ago I figured a 4 stringed instrument wouldn’t be too intimidating even to someone with my limited capabilities. It was fun, nobody’s ears broke, and I eventually upgraded from 4 strings to 6, taking guitar lessons and even teaching myself to read music at a basic level.

Recently, that same music shop offered a new ukulele workshop, specifically about strumming techniques. The instructor introduced several different strum patterns, and also made it clear that they were all riffs on the basic up and down strokes. Simple, and yet for me, it opened new doors to my understanding of what I was trying to to. I also realized it felt strangely familiar. Later I realized that the familiarity came from knitting, where there are really only two basic stitches, knit and purl. Everything else is a riff. While I have in no way begun to master this domain, I now feel better able to find a path that will lead me deeper into what was previously unknown.

Over the last few months, I have been experiencing the professional side of learning an entirely new domain. To some extent, this is the nature of research in the business world — new projects mean new areas to explore, and I believe a commonality among my colleagues in this type of work is our curiosity and desire to be lifelong learners. In fact, an ethnographic approach benefits from the researcher coming to a project with fresh eyes and the ability to make the familiar strange and pull out what is tacit for the experts. Yet even within this we tend to develop certain comfortable areas of expertise. For me, working for 15 years with the same company meant I had some deep grounded knowledge in areas such as postal, shipping, and communications.

Now, I am working in health care. And while I have done some individual projects in this domain over the years, not only is this is not a single short term project the whole focus is to build tools to help end users understand their choices within Medicare a very complex United States government program. I haven’t yet found the two simple building blocks that will create a path to expertise, nor do I expect to. It is a domain that is governed by policy, serving beneficiaries who have extremely personal concerns, experiences, and levels of knowledge that impact what are the “right” decisions for them.

So how do we crack open that door to understanding a new domain? For me, it has been the same methods I use when encountering any new area. In no particular order:

  1. Read. Whatever is new to me is likely not new to others. Yes, I have books about ukulele! But I have also devoured a lot of written material about Medicare, from government sources, from researchers, from insurance companies, and journalists.

  2. Experience it. Experience can mean a lot of things. I don’t know of anyone who can learn to play an instrument without getting hands-on. In many domains researchers can be participants observers. Since I am not qualified for the Medicare program, there is only so far I can go down the path of direct experience.

  3. Learn from other people’s experiences. I have had a lot of conversations with Medicare beneficiaries, and not only in the context of research sessions. Informal conversations with family, friends and acquaintances have broadened by understanding of the range of perspectives around the program.

  4. Ask questions. If you ever think you know everything, you are becoming complacent. Keep track of what doesn’t make sense, or doesn’t match your current understanding. Note what seems to be changing and ask why. And don’t be shy about questioning expert opinions — they don’t know everything either.

I don’t claim to play ukulele very well (and admit I don’t practice as much as I should) and I also won’t claim to be a Medicare expert — but I do attempt to keep on learning.