When I was a kid I was, to put it mildly, a bit on the sensitive or high-strung side. Easily startled or frightened, there was nothing quite like thunderstorms to get my blood pumping. Not wanting to be tense every time the sky opened up, I did what I did best even in my single-digit years: I turned to reading. This approach has served me well, right into adulthood.
If you read enough fantastic literature, you come to understand that if you learn a person or thing’s true name, you can have power over them. This is also true if you’re taking on a vast, new, possibly intimidating subject as a technical writer. For me, understanding something simple like the fact that thunder was the sound lightning made and that it could be studied dispassionately was a great discovery. In addition to lightning, I became a connoisseur of weather reports and storms: air masses, fronts, cumulonimbus clouds, tornadoes, hurricanes. I can’t say that much of the science stuck as well as it should, but I became at least aware of when they were forming around me. I still have family and friends ask me about upcoming weather, even though they have the same access to Weather.com that I do.
In similar wise, I started studying other things that worried me: conflict, war, other people, airplane or rocket accidents (like I said, I was a sensitive kid). What I tried to learn in my studies of these various subjects was a general impression of how things worked. What was “normal?” What was “stability?” What were the big trends over the course of time so I could anticipate what might come next?
To summarize, when I study a new, complex, or potentially complicated subject, I try to see the big picture first. I need to understand the context of decisions and behaviors. If I can see the big picture, I can then start breaking it down into its smaller constituent parts and then can put things back together so I can see how the whole system works. So as I put information together, it becomes more manageable, less overwhelming and, yes, not quite as scary.