Some thoughts on learning

I spend a fair amount of my time learning about things. Lately, I’ve been observing myself learning and trying to distill what works, what doesn’t. So, this is a list of some recurrent thoughts, beliefs, approaches on learning I have.

Learning new things is hard. I think it is specially hard because as we grow older we tend to be less interested in doing things that leave us uncomfortable and being a beginner sucks. Additionally, as we grow older we get too used to being an expert in X, where X is whatever we studied in, high school + studied in university + what we do on our day jobs – and not being an expert is scary.
So the first assumption to drop when learning something new is that it is going to be easy. Being uncomfortable and clueless is the norm. There are more things in the world that we don’t know about, than we actually know about. You can take steps to mitigate that uncomfortableness, or to use your time effectively, but learning anything (or mastering anything) takes time. The expectation that it is going to be easy only makes it less likely that we’re going to endure the pain.

Becoming an expert requires tacit knowledge that can only be acquired by experience. The Dreyfus model of acquisition explains this better than I can. The key insight is that you need to adjust your proficiency expectations with the amount of time you will dedicate to learning it. You may take shortcuts to become competent (e.g. books, courses, mentors) but you will only become an expert with experience. For example, when I am learning a new programming language, I don’t have any expectations that I will become an expert on it unless I am planning to use it across many different problems for a long period of time.

Having a goal makes learning easier.
Are you learning something to become a master on it? Are you learning something to be able to do a particular thing? Are you learning something because it is fun? Different goals will eventually require different methods.

A short book or blog might be enough if you want to get a simple task done. Understanding the whole syllabus might be important if you are aiming to be a leading expert in any field. Understanding the goal helps in setting clear expectations of time investment, and knowing what to focus on. Goals also serve as a reminder why a particular thing is important for me, which is super useful when I feel like giving up.

The other thing is, if you have a very general goal (e.g. “become a master in field X”) you’ll likely have to break it down into smaller goals that can take you there. You’ll have to do a set of finite games within the big infinite game.

Distilling big goals into small digestible steps makes learning even easier. The idea here is to be able to specify the knowledge that you need to get acquainted with in order to get to your goal. Let’s say you want to build an iOS weather app, you might have to learn the following things:

  • learn how to program in Swift
  • learn how to use Xcode
  • learn how to fetch data from an API within an app
  • learn how to develop UI for iOS apps

Being able to specify the big knowledge buckets, and then going to more detail within each is super helpful for me. In particular because it helps me focus on what matters. It is very easy to get derailed when you’re learning something new, even though you don’t know almost anything there are things that are more valuable than others to learn at any point in time.
The key here is being inquisitive and being able to quickly assess if something matters or not. Figuring this out is not straightforward. It requires a lot of iterating.
Usually I like to write down important questions I have, prioritize them, attempt to answer them, write down more questions, and loop. If you aren’t able to indicate what you know, you can always invert the question and try to specify what you don’t know and traverse the knowledge tree from there.
I think gaining proper judgement for what matters and what not when learning something new is an underrated skill.

It is a bit hard to be able to clearly tell what you should learn when you are a complete beginner to a topic. Being able to get in touch with a more experienced person in the field and asking her is invaluable, that way you’ll also be able to pick up the terms used and how the person frames her thinking (P.S. take lots of notes!). Additionally, I think there are good introductory texts in most fields that can give you a clear idea of what is important.

It is useful to learn which learning methods work best for each situation and you

Learning is deeply personal, so you should learn what works for you.

I like books when digging into or skimming over a topic. Books are super cheap, $10-$60, considering they give you access to knowledge from some of the smartest/experienced people in the world in any field. A good book allows you to save time since you don’t have to go through the trouble of compiling all the knowledge. Books are also nice because you can just look at the table of contents and go straight to what is important to you.

Good blogposts/websites are also useful in order to get introductory information into a given topic. I do resort to books whenever I need to get deep into a topic though.

I like YouTube and videos for introductions into practical topics. For example, you can find many short videos on programming language concepts on Youtube which come at a inferior time cost than setting up the development environment yourself.

Practicing/Doing is generally better than reading/watching but it comes at a higher time cost. I only do practical exercises for things that really matter to me since I usually can get the gist of things from watching/reading. So, it really depends on the goal you have.

Gaining good judgement for good/bad content when learning is also super important.

Time is my currency, so I intentionally deploy methods that require more time depending on the importance of a topic to me/my goal. I am also generally willing to spend money in order to save time in most situations.

Write and reflect

Our brains aren’t as good as we often think they are. Our memory isn’t as good as we’d like it to be. Our decision making is often fraught with biases. Writing helps mitigate these shortcomings.
I write down my questions. I write down notes about what is useful/what is not. I write down the reasoning behind decisions that lead me to focus on a specific topic. I write down what I am struggling with. Writing down helps in removing some of the anxiety that comes with dealing with abstract goals in which there is no obvious correct path to take. Writing and reflecting, creates a feedback loop while learning.