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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 July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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