Know what you don’t know
I have met in my career a couple of exceptional engineers who are just moving at such a fast pace it’s very difficult to comprehend. And when I look back at that, the underlying trait that all of them share is this honesty about how little they know. They know a lot, but they know how much they don’t know. As a consequence of that, they tend to work on fundamentals first, before they get serious about any topic.
Fundamentals all the way
When you are honest with yourself, you start working on fundamentals first, where else to start if you know you don’t know a lot? So when I speak with these exceptional engineers about any topic, they quickly resort to speaking about fundamentals, and how this is built by a clever combination of this fundamental data structure or this fundamental algorithm. They can grok very complex architectures in a matter of days because it’s just fundamental ideas on top of other fundamental ideas.
Keep it that way
And it does not bother them in the slightest to pick something new and start from absolute zero, almost zero ego when it comes to knowledge. They treat knowledge as something sacred, to be taken upon with care and to be humble all the time. And you will notice these types of engineers are dabbling in all sorts of things, but they keep it simple and they work on fundamentals first.