Making sense of the mess: creating stories to understand

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I start my first consulting job this Monday, working with a healthcare consulting firm to help companies solve real-world problems. Before this, I was PhD student working in a research lab and my consulting experience was only pro-bono projects with a graduate consulting club. Nor was I terribly close to the healthcare field—my lab doesn’t do research on anything directly related to healthcare of pharmaceuticals. Given this background, you might be asking how I can possibly work in healthcare consulting. There’s so much I don’t know, how can I possibly succeed? Where do I possibly start learning?

When faced with a huge field containing a lot of information, I’ve found the best way to start learning is to build stories. The human brain is wired for stories because it naturally creates or attributes agency to things. It finds causes and effects. So we can use this innate understanding of stories to go into a field and build a narrative that helps us understand. Think of the story of Newton and the apple during discovery of gravity. Whether or not it’s true, we remember that an apple fell onto Newton’s head and he realized gravity exists. There’s a cause – the apple – and effect – Newton suddenly ‘getting’ gravity as a force that pulls things toward the Earth. In learning this story, we remember more than if someone had simply told us “Gravity pulls things toward the Earth.”

But in a new field, it’s not enough to simply hear the story. It’s the act of making that makes you remember. To truly understand something, build the story yourself. As an example, this isn’t my first field switch; before my PhD in synthetic biology, I got a B.S. in Environmental Science. But the those two fields are far apart, so I built stories that covered the major breakthroughs in synthetic biology. I looked at who had done what and when and who built on that research afterward. It helped me rapidly catch up and graduate on time with my peers. Science also backs me up on this one: writing, or more broadly just interacting with information beyond reading it silently helps you remember it (Sources: PopSci article, Hardcore paper source from recent literature).

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An example of a timeline made in Sutori (link below) to help understand companies in the healthcare industry.

So if you’re jumping into a new field or subject, don’t just passively read stories, make them. How? There’s always pencil and paper, where you can draw a timeline or write a paragraph-long story summarizing what you’ve learned. But if you want something searchable, try making your story digitally. I’m currently using Sutori, which lets you create timelines for free using any kind of mixed media (text, image, video). There are also several other timeline builders listed here, and you can even organize information beyond the timeline and make a flowchart or sketch on Google Docs, Microsoft Office, or wherever else you can find the tools to sketch and write. Get creative, because the more you create, the more you’ll remember.

So feeling lost in a new field? Start making a story out of it.

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