What Do You Know?



What do you really know about a subject or topic?  You can easily test yourself, and expose your gaps.  When you fill in the gaps, you take what you know deeper.

You internalize it.

It’s a process of mastering the fundamentals.

In the book, The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking, Edward B. Burger and Michael Starbird show us how to test what we know and take it deeper.

Outline It

Test what you know by writing an outline.  Burger and Starbird write:

“Do you or don’t you truly know the basics? Consider a subject you think you know or a subject you are trying to master.  Open a blank document on your computer.  Without referring to any outside sources, write a detailed outline of the fundamentals of the subject. “

Check Your Outline

How deep did you go?  Burger and Starbird write:

“Can you write a coherent, accurate, and comprehensive description on the foundations of the subject, or does your knowledge have gaps?  Do you struggle to think of core examples? Do you struggle to see the overall big picture that puts the pieces together?”

Compare It to Available Information

How does you outline stand up compared to other sources?  Burger and Starbird write:

“Now, compare your effort to external sources (texts, Internet, experts, your boss.)  When you discover weaknesses in your own understanding of the basics, take action.  Methodically learn the fundamentals.  Thoroughly understand any gap fill in as well as its surrounding territory.  Make these new insights part of your base knowledge and connect them with the parts you already understood.”

Return to the Basics

The basics take you deeper.  Burger and Starbird write:

“Repeat this exercise regularly as you learn more advanced aspects of the subject (and save your earlier attempts so that you can look back and see how far you’ve traveled).  Every return to the basics will deepen your understanding of the entire subject.”

It’s all about the fundamentals.

So, what do you know about the your favorite subject?

Go test yourself.

Image by Eneas.


  1. Very interesting approach to self-analyzation. I often question myself and ask if I truly have “Mastery.” A great example would be Tennis with its seemingly limitless technical subtleties. How much about anything do we know? Attempting to reconstruct can be a brutal wakeup call.

    • Tennis is a great example, because it requires more than intellectual knowledge.

      You can focus on mastering tennis
      – intellectually (the information)
      – emotionally
      – physically

      I think the “dump what you know” outline test is really about checking how much information you’ve internalized.

      To take your physical game to the next level, I think coaching others helps, because it forces you to break things down, and use precision. Additionally, doing deliberate practice with feedback from a mentor or coach, would also change your game.

      Mastery really is a journey.

  2. I use pieces of this technique for two things:
    1. Elevator spiels
    2. Answering “The Why”
    These are often the same. I find I often am unable to clearly articulate my excitement & enthusiasm for new projects I’m pitching or in which I’m involved. Outlining the concepts as well as the pros-&-cons gives me the verbal clarity I need. Thanks for the validation, J.D.!

    • I’ve been checking myself daily with this technique now. For example, today, I’ve been a Program Manager forever, so what do I know? And then I drill into specific topics, like “estimation” or “planning”, etc.

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