Chances are, within the next few months, you’ll be asked at least once to acquire a new skill or body of knowledge. If you’re in high-tech, you can count on your entire skill-set becoming obsolete every few years, but even people in less accelerated fields have to keep learning just to stay even these days.
For example, whether you’re in marketing and PR, corporate communications, human resources, or political campaigning, you’ve had to learn how to use and make sense of social media – a field that barely existed a couple of years ago. That so many companies and individuals still do it badly is no excuse – if you want to stand out in these (and many other) fields, you have to master this new medium, and fast.
Learning enough about a new field to function, and doing it in a short amount of time, is something I do all the time as a writer. Whether it’s putting together a sales page for a client whose product I’ve never even heard of before or writing an article on a topic I know nothing about, I’m constantly having to give myself a crash course in topics that, a few days earlier, I didn’t even know were topics!
Below are some of the strategies I use to get quickly up-to-speed on whatever subject is thrown at me. Not all of these techniques are necessary in every instance, but I know I’ll always be using at least two or three in any given situation. I pride myself on being able to grasp the basics of any topic within a few days (at most) – at least enough to ask decent questions and follow along when somebody speaks about a subject.
Let’s start with the obvious – modern web searching puts a tremendous amount of information at our fingertips, and makes it tremendously accessible. Since finding good information relies on the ability to craft a good search query, I usually start with reference sites like Wikipedia to get a grounding in the general outlines of a topic, so I can start fine-tuning my search queries. I also stay on the lookout for key names and organizations, which can add quite a bit to a web search.
To improve the quality of information my searches uncover, I will very often add one of these terms to my search queries:
With my list of keywords and important names in hand, my next step after searching the Internet is to visit a giant building full of books. For academic topics, I’ll try to get to my university library (and most universities – but alas, not all – will let non-students and non-faculty in to look, even if they won’t let you check anything out), though a lot of public libraries have many of the same resources these days. If I’m trying to learn a new skill – like Ruby programming, a short-lived fascination I entertained a couple years ago – I’ll just head to a bookstore. You’d be surprised at how many “Learn X
Don’t neglect the newsstand at your bookstore (or if you have a real newsstand around, head straight there!) or periodicals room at your library. Most subjects have a variety of magazines devoted to them, ranging from hobbyist mags to academic journals, and spending a couple of hours with a few recent issues can go a long way towards familiarizing you with the main areas of interest in the field. Pay attention to the letters and editor’s notes – these often “explain the explanations” by serving as “meta-discourse” on the more complex material covered deeper in the magazine. Also look at ads, which can give you leads on companies to look up. Finally, note the names of anyone who seems to be hailed as a leader in the field – especially if they are profiled or interviewed.
In strategies 1-3 above, you should have amassed a list of names of key experts; Google them and try to find their homepages. If they’re academics, they should have a homepage at their university, at least; if business leaders, look for them in the directories of the companies they work for. If you’re really lucky, they’ll have a personal site or even a blog, giving you access to all sorts of information “straight from the horse’s mouth” so to speak.
Once you’ve located your experts, email them or call them, explain your topic, and ask their advice. This won’t work in every situation, or even be appropriate, but you’d be surprised at how helpful people can be when you approach them with respect. I do this all the time to get sources for stories I’m working on, and nobody’s ever held my lack of expertise against me. Have a look at my guide to contacting experts, How to Email a Stranger, on this site.
Also, don’t overlook Twitter and other one-to-many mediums (including your blog, if you have one). If you have a decent-sized following at Twitter, even a hundred or so people, you’ll be surprised at how much information you can turn up with a 140-character-or-less question. When I bought a Blackberry after 8 years of devoted Palm use, I tweeted to ask what resources I should look at and what software I should install, and within hours I had checked installed a dozen useful programs and was wading through a half-dozen interesting websites.
One of the best ways to learn is to write about a topic – even if nobody else ever reads it. It quickly becomes apparent what the blank spots are in your budding new understanding, driving you back to fill in those gaps. Take an hour or two to write a short description of what you’ve learned about your topic – who knows, it might even come in handy as a reference later on.
Of course, you don’t really start learning until you try to apply what you know to a real-world situation. For example, while most programming books have chapters about programming theory, they also walk you through program after program, starting with putting “Hello World!” up on a screen. Making something that works gives you an understanding of the mechanics of a topic that’s far more intimate than just reading about it or listening to someone explain it can – plus, it gives you a sense of accomplishment that helps keep you from getting overwhelmed by the amount of stuff you still have to learn.
Depending on the scope of the topic you’re trying to learn about, you might consider joining a local enthusiasts group, signing up for a meetup, or even enrolling with a national professional organization. The bigger groups have newsletters, magazines, or academic journals included with membership, and all of them will give you an opportunity to learn about and network with the bigwigs in their respective fields.
For long-term learning, a blog that tracks your efforts and progress can be very rewarding. A personal journal is good, too, but a blog has a few advantages over a private journal – one, you’ll be helping others at or slightly behind your level get up to speed, which may well become a kind of informal support group for you all; two, when you make mistakes publicly, you learn faster, especially if readers catch your mistakes; and three, you’ll be advertising to the world that you’re open to advice. If you keep yourself approachable, you might find that the information you need comes to you, instead of the other way around.
Try to keep a good sense of where you are and what you need to learn next – you’re not going to become an expert overnight. Let others guide you until you can make good choices on your own, and recognize your strengths as they develop – and your weaknesses. Give yourself permission to make mistakes, and to spend as long as you need at any given level of knowledge. If you’re really serious about a topic, set long-term goals for where you want to be in one year, two years, etc., and develop a plan that will get you there.
As I said, I have to get a basic overview of a new field every couple of weeks or so, which may be extreme, but that’s the life I’ve chosen. These are the techniques that have worked for me – what about you? When have you had to learn something totally new, and how did you do it? Let us know about it in the comments.
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