In any skill you want to learn, it’s always useful to explore it from two views: bottom-up and top-down. The bottom-up approach starts breaking down the problem into components and then trying to understand how each of these building blocks fit. In contrast, the top-down approach starts from the big picture to get a good survey of the landscape and working down from there. It is advantageous to use these two lenses iteratively to ensure that you do not miss important considerations in decision making. Iterating through the two can help you converge to a better understanding of the field.
Let’s say that you are trying to learn a skill like programming. You can start by working top-down. This means that you try to get a general idea of what the skill entails. Perhaps, it is about trying to create a website. From day one, you then start creating the website. You learn the different skills involved in creating the site as you go along. If you want to put a yellow bar on top of the page, you google just to find how to do that. You look at the code of other websites to see how they implemented these features.
On the other hand, the bottom-up approach starts from learning how to code itself. You learn about the different functions, typically from a book or a guided lecture. After learning these building blocks, you then integrate them to larger components.
The challenge with the top down approach is that the learning process may seem too scattered that you may have some important gaps in your knowledge. While you may end up producing an output that “works,” it may all be based on bad foundations. In the end, the output you get may be in such a bad architecture that it may have to be redone again with experts who are well versed with the bottom up. However, the good thing about the approach is that you get something out of it quickly. You then get a mental picture of what you need to work on next. You create your own map of the learning journey you need to take.
On the other hand, the challenge with the bottom-up approach is the difficulty to motivate yourself to continue along. If you don’t see any product for a long time, you might just give up and see no point to studying the details. However, the bottom-up approach can be rewarding as you have a great understanding of each component. You do not see the field merely as a black box.
The two approaches require balance. You need to work top down to see how each component fits together. You also have to go bottom up to ensure that you know each component well enough.