How to Learn

Nov 9, 2017

Recently, I was messaging an old acquaintance when the topic came up: how was it that I’ve learned the things that I have? Gaining knowledge and skills is one of the most satisfying things there is, but reflecting back on how I’ve gone about doing it in the past, it isn’t completely clear. Most learning I’ve pursued has been some sort of the language (of the linguistic or programming variety), the sort of the topic that can leave many people’s heads turning.

So if you decide you want to learn Crotian, or full-stack Fortran, or whatever crosses your mind, most people probably have no idea how to start. I know I didn’t. These are giant subjects, any single one of which you could find your self dedicating a lifetime without mastering. What I’ve found for myself, though (and I can only speak for myself, but my hunch is that it will apply to others as well) is that there are more effective and less effective mental approaches to this.

The less effective approach views the problem as a question of “what exact knowledge do I need to find, and how do I insert it into my brain?” Essentially, the individual looks for the information in some predigested form, then pursues the acquisition of only that under the belief that this will be enough. I know this is how I used to view these things, and talking to people that want to learn things (such as software development) I see this pattern quite a bit. They get really caught up on what exact resource they should use. I’ve noticed so many times very talented people straight up asking me “what book (or website or course or whatever) should I use?” Then I try to emphasize to them that the process is important, and not a resource, and they nod their heads in agreement, but then they immediately go back to “yes, I understand completely…but what book do I use?”

I propose a different approach. Understand that these are vast bodies of knowledge that cannot be digested down into easy chunks, and that any attempt to treat is as such is futile. Instead, approach the task as a process. Over an extended period of time, you are going to interact with this body of knowledge as regularly and deeply as you can. How did I learn Spanish? I didn’t seek contrived, preprocessed material…I threw myself into it, speaking with people and consuming media with wreckless disregard for whether I was perfectly at the level where I could tackle it. How did I learn Django? I dove right into a project, again, without any regard about whether I was “ready.”

By immersing myself in the body of knowledge I wanted, the important bits automatically began to show up again and again…common words, design patterns. I found that by stepping back, doing the best to use the new skill as much as I could, and not stressing out, the details all took care of themselves. And this really is what I recommend to anyone else who is intimidated by the task of picking up a large skill. Don’t stress…don’t worry about the exact thing you will do right. Just go ahead and use it, don’t try and figure out if you’re actually ready, and it’s going to be alright in the end.