Depth vs Breadth

In one of the very early computer science courses I took, the concept of a “depth-first search” vs a “breadth-first search” came up. It’s something that stuck with me, not because I’m deeply invested into search functions, but because it struck me as a good metaphor for how to approach life.


I am not highly skilled at terribly many of the things I do. I’ve very frequently been second- or third-best in competitions I’m serious about, rarely cracking the top of the charts despite the effort I put in. In my FFXIV raid, I am not the best healer, or the best DPS, and certainly not hte best tank; there are people who are far more focused than I am in all of those categories. I can, however, competently do all three. I have regularly swapped between the healing and DPS roles so much that I’ve lagged behind in gear quality compared to others, simply because I’m splitting my focus. Despite apparent evidence to the contrary, I’ve tanked Coil raid content and extreme-mode primals; my avoidance of the tank role is more an affectation at this point than anything. I’m not the best at any of these roles, or even necessarily great, but I can do all of them and I lean on my breadth of knowledge to give me shortcuts.

Kodra sometimes likes to talk about his experience trying to surpass me as a rogue in World of Warcraft, while we were raiding. I was able to regularly and easily put out the most damage of the group at very low risk. This has (not incorrectly) been attributed to my weapon choice– having done some testing, I used a dagger in my off hand as part of a sword-based specialization; counterintuitive at best, suboptimal at worst. It was a specific dagger I used, that essentially let me exploit a particular effect that was rather redundant if the dagger was the primary weapon, but unlocked some obscenely powerful chains if it wasn’t. Where I got the idea from was a discussion I’d read about warriors, a class I didn’t even play, that was talking about the value of accuracy (+hit%) for generating their combat resource. If I could hit more often, I could deal significantly more damage, and one of the special properties of the dagger is that it could, on occasion, cause me to hit perfectly for a very brief window. I focused on my accuracy, getting more of those hits to land and getting the dagger to work its magic more often, and I skyrocketed to the top of the charts, not by becoming a better rogue, but by becoming a better warrior.


Kodra is nodding right about now, but there’s a second half of this story. One of our other rogues spent months trying to imitate my playstyle and finally got the (admittedly extraordinarily rare) dagger to drop. For him, it was a disaster. His damage spiked, but it was unreliable and he would do too much damage, pull the attention of whatever enemy we were fighting, and wind up in the dirt… or the dagger wouldn’t trigger often enough to be worthwhile. He found it very frustrating, and fairly quickly shoved the dagger in the bank and never looked back. What he wasn’t doing was the other half of my strategy. Even though I didn’t play other classes, I made an effort to understand what they were all doing in various fights. I knew when our tanks had plenty of control over the fight and when they had less, I knew when our healers had spare cycles for raid healing and when they didn’t, and I knew which transitions were touchy and which weren’t. I ruthlessly exploited these, often taking unnecessary damage or stacking a debuff further than I should have, pushing harder when I knew it was safe and pulling back (and often, slightly to the side if there were other overzealous rogues around) when it wasn’t. A statistic that was frequently brought up was the number of deaths in the raid– how many times someone had pushed a little bit too hard and failed. What was much less frequently checked on was the amount of damage taken per death. I very rarely died, but I took enormous amounts of damage: far more than almost any other rogue in the group. I knew when healers could afford to heal me and when they couldn’t, and when they could I put myself in harm’s way to keep on the enemy.

I never mastered rogue rotations or timings or specific boss strategies. I relied in instinct and a wide breadth of knowledge about when and how to run risks. Often, this breadth of knowledge acts as a surrogate for depth of experience, letting me pull ideas from many unrelated places to solve a particular problem.


One of my favorite games is Infinity, which makes it easy for me to amass a wide breadth of experience. I’ve rarely if ever played the same list twice, never spending the time and effort to master a particular build, but being able to draw upon a very broad knowledge of the game has given me the ability to take almost any list I run and perform fairly well with it. I still fall short when I face players who are highly skilled and focus and refine a single list to a honed edge, but I’m not so far behind them that I can’t acquit myself respectably.

It’s a large part of the reason I don’t have a lot of patience for bullet hell shooters. They demand a tight, specific focus, that you memorize patterns and execute them. There’s no room for instinct, no room for ad-libbing, and no way for me to draw a breadth of skills in. They’re the antithesis of how I learn and operate, and I have a huge amount of difficulty with them. Fighting games are similar, asking for a very specific focus and a certain amount of depth in specific skills.


When I’m in charge of a group, I tend to surround myself with people who focus on depth. They’re almost always better at me at the things they choose to do, and it gives me opportunities to learn from them. I benefit both from the depth of their skill and the shortcuts I learn that add to my breadth of experience. Little things fascinate me: how gestures in other countries differ from the ones I’m used to; which turns of phrase in English have analogues in other languages, and how the meanings change; how a tank builds threat and when; where healers prefer to stand relative to everyone else. These little things all give me perspective, so that no matter what I’m doing I can pull in *something* to build on whatever I’m working on and imitate depth.

This habit is something that’s bothered me a lot in the past. I would look at any individual thing I did and be frustrated that I wasn’t better at it. I could be good– good enough that people would respect my abilities, but rarely the best. It took me years to see the bigger picture, that I was good at a lot of things, and that even if I wasn’t the best in any single one, in aggregate I had a very broad skillset and knowledge base. I’ve never been a depth-first person; until something hooks my interest or makes its value apparent, I don’t drill down and focus on something (though on occasion I have done this).

I've caught myself thinking this.

I’ve caught myself thinking this.

I don’t have a particular conclusion to draw from here, just a meditation on how I think and the kinds of things I focus on. I think a source of frustration for me lately has been that I’ve had few opportunities to expand the breadth of my knowledge, partly due to a lack of resources and partly due to a lack of opportunity. I have a new appreciation for the classwork I’m doing and the perspectives it exposes me to; it’s an opportunity that I relish, and in this lull between quarters I quickly find that I miss it.

Source: Digital Initiative
Depth vs Breadth

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