Hackernoon logoThe Thing about Rabbit Holes by@nkgokul

The Thing about Rabbit Holes

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@nkgokulGokul N K

Inquisitive, student, teacher and a wanna be story teller. Working on https://learningpaths.io/

The dictionary meaning of a rabbit hole is as follows.

rabbit hole
Used to refer to a bizarre, confusing, or nonsensical situation or environment, typically one from which it is difficult to extricate oneself.

While the meaning conveyed by this definition has a negative connotation, the term rabbit hole is generally used in positive connotation in various contexts. Examples of rabbit hole being used in positive connotation include “Alice in Wonderland”, internet, learning and research. Let us look at Rabbit holes in each of these contexts.

Rabbit hole and Alice in Wonderland

I first came across the term rabbit hole in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”. As a kid who has not fallen in love with the the girl Alice and her story. The story of a girl who falls down a rabbit hole, only to enter the fantasy world full of strange creatures and goes through a series of surreal experiences.

My learning from this story is that, “A rabbit hole is an adventure”. An adventure by definition is an exciting and a risky experience. It comes with a risk and a reward. Understanding your risks and rewards before entering a rabbit hole forms a critical piece and can contribute to your success. Before getting into the details of how we can do this, let us look at Rabbit holes in the context of internet and learning first.

Rabbit holes and Internet

Rabbit holes are the crux of the internet because of the way internet was built and how it became popular. Hyperlinks forms the core of web and internet. Hyperlinks make sure that the content is not duplicated but at the same time all the relevant data is available and is referenced in the context of the current topic.

Google was one of the first search engines to understand the importance of hyperlinks and benefitted hugely from it. It is still reaping the benefits of the same. Google search is a popular gateway to the world of internet today. While there are many more factors that contribute to the ranking of a page on Google today, hyperlinks still form the core of their ranking algorithms. We can safely say that the web was designed to work as a rabbit hole considering the way hyperlinks work. Every time we click on a hyperlink we are entering a possible rabbit hole.

Internet has been a great enabler for learning in today’s era. Today you can get education without going to colleges(and going bankrupt in the process) by leveraging internet. Likes of Udemy and Couresera are becoming the proponents of self learning. They effectively let you choose your favourite rabbit holes for learning.

Rabbit holes and learning

Rabbit holes also forms a critical part of learning. Richard Hamming, in his Bell Communications Research Colloquium Seminar makes an interesting observation about it while commenting on talented scientists not making enough of worthy contributions for the talent they are endowed with. He says “They fail to continue to plant the little acorns from which the mighty oak trees grow.” You generally end up finding these acorns when you take rabbit holes that pique your interest. You may not always have the time and resources to pursue every rabbit hole that you wish but it is important to keep a track of them so that you can always come back to them.

A rabbit hole that keeps coming back in your work is an indication that there is a greater intersection between the work you are being paid to do and the rabbit hole you wanted to pursue. Exploring such rabbit holes is beneficial to both you and your employer. It can have both short term and long terms benefits for both.

The term “employer” is used in general terms here. It can be your boss/manager at job or it can be the university where you are pursuing your degree or PHD or it can be yourself if you are self employed.

Should I go down the rabbit hole?

Though I have had difference of opinions about pursuing rabbit holes there is no doubt that I have always found them fascinating and enthralling. At times I have lost my sleep over couple of days while enjoying the adventures within a rabbit hole. The effect of dopamine released is too addictive to close all the tabs, shutdown the the laptop and go back to sleep. At times this has led to me being sleepy for the major part of the following day. But one thing I have realised over the time is that no rabbit hole I have ever undertaken is a waste of time. It may not have yielded rewards right away or until this point of time but that is not a criteria to decide. We are ignoring the second order effects here and the potential for future rewards of that knowledge. For example when I was in high school I got so fascinated by the prime numbers that I spent so many days and nights researching about prime numbers. I have never been able to put them to use till date. But recently when cryptocurrencies stoked my interest it was so easy to make sense of cryptography and the role it played in cryptocurrencies.

Rabbit holes may not always pay off in the short term but they generally tend to pay off in the long term. So how do you balance your self interest in learning and exploring with that of your employer?

Balancing your self interest and your employer’s interest

You may not always have the resources to experience and explore the Alice’s wonderland by diving straight into the rabbit holes. If you can, then you are definitely lucky(Make the most out of it). But not everybody is. They will either have bills to pay or deadlines to meet. It is important to balance both as the revenues generated can sponsor you to go deep into many more such rabbit holes.

One thing that I do is to track the time I spend on rabbit holes. I make sure to spend a portion of it in office time and the remaining in my personal time. The ratio depends on how closely the rabbit hole is connected to the work I do. If it has scope for immediate returns I don’t mind spending more of my time at office. But if I think it is a long shot or it is way off of what we are working on at office, I spend most of my personal time on it. Having a predefined threshold time limit before entering a rabbit hole makes sure that I don’t spend more time than what I have allotted to that rabbit hole for the day. Once I hit the threshold I promptly bookmark all the links and get back to the work that is relevant to the current deadlines.

The bookmarks and bookmarked rabbit holes grow with time. We have all been there. Most of the times we many not be able to pursue all the bookmarked rabbit holes. Even if you don’t have the enough resources to go after every rabbit hole, it makes a lot of sense to share your journey of exploring those rabbit holes with interested parties so that they can dig deeper into the rabbit holes that pique their interest. You may end up collaborating with them at a later stage or they may ending doing something substantial. You never know.

While rabbit holes are all interesting and exciting for an individual it becomes important to add a structure to your rabbit hole journeys so that you can get a buy in from your employer. It starts with being able to understand the differences between Data, Information, Knowledge, Insight and Wisdom.

Difference between Data, Information, Knowledge, Insight and Wisdom

There are various different versions of this images that are popular on internet.

I particularly love the above image as it puts a couple of things in perspective. Data Collection, Categorising the collected data to information, Connecting the dots to build a knowledge tree, Generating insights based on knowledge tree and Using these insights to achieve what we need to accomplish; all these are critical to learning. We need good set of tools to make each of these transitions successfully. Today there is a huge gap in this area. We are trying to fill these gaps, one piece at a time.

The product we are working on : Learning Paths

We are working on a product that will help users convert their favourite rabbit holes to learning paths. The tool will help you keep your learning paths organised and build on from one stage to other in the previous image. Over the time we are planning to make it more collaborative so that you can take your favourite learning path along with your friends where each one of them is contributing their share.

Think of it like your college days where you used to split each subject between your friends and each one of them dug deep in their favourite sub-topic and then finally the knowledge was shared with the group. All college students especially Engineering students can vouch for this approach. We are just trying to give you this experience online which will be much more easier, intuitive and collaborative.

Suite of tools

The goal of suite of tools we are building will try to accomplish one of the following.

  1. Move from unstructured to structured.
  2. Move from lack of connections to relevant connections.
  3. Move from a clean slate to a perpetual draft that represents your learning.
  4. Ability to convert these perpetual drafts to shareable posts with minimal effort.

In short our suite of tools will help you convert your rabbit holes into learning paths.

“The joy of seeing things falling in place” is irreplaceable. The interesting part is that once some puzzles starting falling into place, it becomes much more easier to find the missing parts. Since our learning paths can be spread over different time frames and devices, it is of paramount importance that we have a thread that holds everything together. We envision that our product and suite of tools can play that role of becoming that ubiquitous thread in all your learning paths.


We will be publishing a separate post about our product and suite of tools with the features that we are envisioning. In the meantime your feedback will be valuable to us.

Please let us know more about your experiences with Rabbit holes. What are your challenges”, how did you decide which rabbit holes to pursue?, what were the outcomes?, was it worth your time?

We are all ears. If you think your friends can share some insights please share the article with them. Don’t forget to clap so that it will reach out to other explorers of rabbit holes. The maximum you can clap is 50 times. Press and hold to clap multiple times.

Don’t forget to subscribe to our waiting list if you would like to be the selected first few to take our product for a spin in a month or two at max :) Do follow us on https://medium.com/learning-paths-io to be up to date about what we are doing.


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