Meaning Before Details

Watching J.C. take an order is like watching Ken Jennings play Jeopardy! J.C. never writes anything down, yet he never gets the order wrong. As the menu offers more than 500 possible combinations of food (entrees, side dishes, salad dressing, etc.) per customer, this is an extraordinary achievement. J.C. has been recorded taking the orders of 20 people consecutively with a zero percent error rate. J.C. worked in a restaurant frequented by University of Colorado brain scientist K. Anders Ericsson. Noticing how unusual J.C.’s skills were, he asked J.C. if he would submit to being studied. The secret of J.C.’s success lay in the deployment of a powerful organization strategy. He always divided the customer’s order into discrete categories, such as entree, temperature, side dish, and so on. He then coded the details of a particular order using a lettering system. For salad dressing, Blue Cheese was always “B,” Thousand Island always “T” and so on. Using this code with the other parts of the menu, he assigned the letters to an individual face and remembered the assignment. By creating a hierarchy of gist, he easily could apprehend the details.

The Schema video is an example of meaning before details.

J.C.’s strategy employs a principle well-known in the brain-science community: Memory is enhanced by creating associations between concepts. This experiment has been done hundreds of times, always achieving the same result: Words presented in a logically organized, hierarchical structure are much better remembered than words placed randomly—typically 40 percent better. This result baffles scientists to this day. Embedding associations between data points necessarily increases the number of items to be memorized. More pieces of intellectual baggage to inventory should make learning more difficult. But that is exactly not what was found. If we can derive the meaning of the words to one another, we can much more easily recall the details. Meaning before details.

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