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Climbing the Learning Curve: What to Do When You’re a n00b

Climbing the Learning Curve: What to Do When You’re a n00b

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    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!

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    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.

    1. Google it.

    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:

    • howto or how to – If I’m looking for practical advice about a task, searching for “how to” pages will bring me tutorials and walkthroughs, where a more general search might bring me pages and pages of news stories, feature articles, resumes, and definitions to search through.
    • ebook or e-book or filetype:pdf – For real in-depth information, nothing beats a book – except an ebook, which I can download immediately, review instantly, and search within to find specific words or phrases.
    • forum – If the experience of the “person on the street” might be useful – for instance, in tracking down the solution to technological nuisances – forums are ideal, as they tend to contain informal and practical advice from one person to another.

    2. Hit the library or bookstore.

    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 in 24 hours” type books there are out there – if more than a handful of people are interested in learning about something, chances are there’s a how-to book on it.

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    3. Look for magazines.

    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.

    4. Find the experts.

    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.

    5. Ask for help.

    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.

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    6. Write about it.

    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.

    7. Make something.

    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.

    8. Join a group.

    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.

    9. Start a blog.

    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.

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    10. Take it one step at a time.

    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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    Last Updated on November 5, 2019

    How to Cultivate Continuous Learning to Stay Competitive

    How to Cultivate Continuous Learning to Stay Competitive

    Assuming the public school system didn’t crush your soul, learning is a great activity. It expands your viewpoint. It gives you new knowledge you can use to improve your life. It is important for your personal growth. Even if you discount the worldly benefits, the act of learning can be a source of enjoyment.

    “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” — Mark Twain

    But in a busy world, it can often be hard to fit in time to learn anything that isn’t essential. The only things learned are those that need to be. Everything beyond that is considered frivolous. Even those who do appreciate the practice of lifelong learning, can find it difficult to make the effort.

    Here are some tips for installing the habit of continuous learning:

    1. Always Have a Book

    It doesn’t matter if it takes you a year or a week to read a book. Always strive to have a book that you are reading through, and take it with you so you can read it when you have time.

    Just by shaving off a few minutes in-between activities in my day I can read about a book per week. That’s at least fifty each year.

    2. Keep a “To-Learn” List

    We all have to-do lists. These are the tasks we need to accomplish. Try to also have a “to-learn” list. On it you can write ideas for new areas of study.

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    Maybe you would like to take up a new language, learn a skill or read the collective works of Shakespeare. Whatever motivates you, write it down.

    3. Get More Intellectual Friends

    Start spending more time with people who think. Not just people who are smart, but people who actually invest much of their time in learning new skills. Their habits will rub off on you.

    Even better, they will probably share some of their knowledge with you.

    4. Guided Thinking

    Albert Einstein once said,

    “Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.”

    Simply studying the wisdom of others isn’t enough, you have to think through ideas yourself. Spend time journaling, meditating or contemplating over ideas you have learned.

    5. Put it Into Practice

    Skill based learning is useless if it isn’t applied. Reading a book on C++ isn’t the same thing as writing a program. Studying painting isn’t the same as picking up a brush.

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    If your knowledge can be applied, put it into practice.

    In this information age, we’re all exposed to a lot of information, it’s important to re-learn how to learn so as to put the knowledge into practice.

    6. Teach Others

    You learn what you teach. If you have an outlet of communicating ideas to others, you are more likely to solidify that learning.

    Start a blog, mentor someone or even discuss ideas with a friend.

    7. Clean Your Input

    Some forms of learning are easy to digest, but often lack substance.

    I make a point of regularly cleaning out my feed reader for blogs I subscribe to. Great blogs can be a powerful source of new ideas. But every few months, I realize I’m collecting posts from blogs that I am simply skimming.

    Every few months, purify your input to save time and focus on what counts.

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    8. Learn in Groups

    Lifelong learning doesn’t mean condemning yourself to a stack of dusty textbooks. Join organizations that teach skills.

    Workshops and group learning events can make educating yourself a fun, social experience.

    9. Unlearn Assumptions

    You can’t add water to a full cup. I always try to maintain a distance away from any idea. Too many convictions simply mean too few paths for new ideas.

    Actively seek out information that contradicts your worldview.

    Our minds can’t be trusted, but this is what we can do about it to be wiser.

    10. Find Jobs that Encourage Learning

    Pick a career that encourages continual learning. If you are in a job that doesn’t have much intellectual freedom, consider switching to one that does.

    Don’t spend forty hours of your week in a job that doesn’t challenge you.

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    11. Start a Project

    Set out to do something you don’t know how. Forced learning in this way can be fun and challenging.

    If you don’t know anything about computers, try building one. If you consider yourself a horrible artist, try a painting.

    12. Follow Your Intuition

    Lifelong learning is like wandering through the wilderness. You can’t be sure what to expect and there isn’t always an end goal in mind.

    Letting your intuition guide you can make self-education more enjoyable. Most of our lives have been broken down to completely logical decisions, that making choices on a whim has been stamped out.

    13. The Morning Fifteen

    Productive people always wake up early. Use the first fifteen minutes of your morning as a period for education.

    If you find yourself too groggy, you might want to wait a short time. Just don’t put it off later in the day where urgent activities will push it out of the way.

    14. Reap the Rewards

    Learn information you can use. Understanding the basics of programming allows me to handle projects that other people would require outside help. Meeting a situation that makes use of your educational efforts can be a source of pride.

    15. Make Learning a Priority

    Few external forces are going to persuade you to learn. The desire has to come from within. Once you decide you want to make lifelong learning a habit, it is up to you to make it a priority in your life.

    More About Continuous Learning

    Featured photo credit: Paul Schafer via unsplash.com

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