You have just a few days to learn everything there is to know about a subject you know nothing about. Now what?
I was staring at a serious problem. To help our firm win a multimillion-dollar consulting contract, I had five days to tell my new boss everything there was to know about airline bankruptcies. Problem was, I didn’t know the first thing about airline bankruptcies.
I barely knew the first thing about anything. It was my first month of my first job out of college, and I had no idea how I—a 23-year-old with zero existing insights on the industry—was going to tell a senior partner anything that wasn’t going to get me fired.
“Feel free to use the Internet,” Terry said as he shut the door to my office. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
No one warns us that adulthood is full of such sweat-inducing dilemmas, where the stakes are your reputation, your career, and (rightly or wrongly) even your sense of self-worth. When you’re in over your head, how do you quickly figure out what’s important? Is there a way to go from incompetent to in control—really, really fast?
As I’ve since discovered, there is. Here’s how it works.
1. GOOGLE ONCE, THEN START SKETCHING
Ted Greenwald knows all about deadlines. As a news editor at the Wall Street Journal with almost 35 years of experience in journalism, Greenwald’s job depends on delivering stories on time and on point.
Greenwald recalls having to get up to speed for a story on network security, a particularly gnarly topic for an outsider. “I really could not make sense of the article,” Greenwald tells me. To make things worse, Greenwald confesses he is “a very slow reader” who doesn’t have time to consume huge piles of research or take multiple passes through material. To survive in the newsroom, he developed two routines.
First, Greenwald says he always “Googles once.” Whenever he starts working on a new story, “instead of reading anything, I do some searches. I just open up a bunch of tabs that look promising; I might very quickly have 20 tabs open.” This doesn’t strike you as all that revolutionary; you probably do the same thing when you’re trying to understand something unfamiliar to you. But you probably also find yourself falling down an infinite digital rabbit hole, right? The key, according to Greenwald, is to build a quick overview of what other people have said—and then stop Googling.
To prevent getting sucked into a time-wasting vortex of endless searching, Greenwald says it’s important to move on after the initial search. You’ve got to do it in one sitting. “Whatever I get there, that’s it—I’m done at that point,” he says. “It’s a limited view, but it skims the cream.”
And the best cream, according to Greenwald, is something you wouldn’t expect a business journalist to search for: pictures. Particularly when the information he’d like to understand involves data, Greenwald suggests looking for images, which convey dense information better than text or raw numbers. “I just imagine what graph I would like to see and type in some words that describe that in Google Images. You may not get the graph you want, but you’ll get something that’s related to it.”
But sometimes, Greenwald admits, image searches come up empty. Even then, he still has to put the pieces of the story together on his own. And that’s when he goes to the drawing board—literally.
“If I’m trying to understand a process, often I will sketch it out as a diagram. It helps me understand the gaps in my knowledge.” Just by using a pen and paper, Greenwald can get to the root of the problem, which is how his story on network security came together. “I probably went through 20 pieces of paper,” Greenwald says, but in the end he finally grasped the complex topic and was ready to write.
2. GET INSIDE THE RIGHT PEOPLE’S HEADS (NOT JUST THE EXPERTS’)
3. TEACH TO KNOW
Write out everything you know about the subject as if you were teaching it to someone else. Not your smart friend but rather a toddler. This may sound silly, but this part is incredibly important and has worked wonders for me learning new things.If you try this and find your explanation depends on a convoluted vocabulary, you likely don’t understand the subject well enough and it’s time to go back and simplify.Today, I’m an author, speaker, and consultant, and I use these techniques to brush up on practically any topic while I’m under the gun. At my first professional job, with a multimillion-dollar deal at stake, I couldn’t fake it—I had to get up to speed. I started by getting a lay of the land on what’s already known. Next, I synthesized what I’d learned with a few rough sketches and then got on the phone with industry experts who could help me spot the gaps. Finally, I broke down the problem and practiced explaining what I’d learned in simple language that anyone could follow.I hustled, but five days proved plenty of time, even for a 23-year-old starting from zero.