I'm a horrible learner.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying I can't learn anything new. What I'm trying to say is that I don't have the best study habits for learning something new. My days can be a bit disorganized sometimes - okay, a lot of times - and I can't seem to fit learning into a dedicated block of time. I also can admittedly get distracted quite easily, like by an email, a text message, or an exciting TV show my wife is watching. My often-disorganized and distracted brain and causes me to spin my wheels and progress at a much slower pace than I'd prefer.
I'm sure that many people who are reading this are nodding their heads and thinking "That sure sounds a lot like me." I've found that it's not an uncommon thing for most of us. It's often difficult to get the focus needed to acquire new abilities, especially in the current age where a million distractions are available at arm's length.
If this does sound like you and you find that you can, I found a great way to learn anything you want. Be warned, though - this is one of the most challenging ways to learn something since you'll most likely experience a lot of frustration and doubt along the way. But I assure you that it will be the best way to learn anything that you have ever done.
Crash and burn
Currently, I'm working as a software engineer. A few months ago, my company added me to a different project at work. While most of the company's applications use similar technologies, the project I would be working on was extensively using a few software libraries that I haven't used before. I wasn't prepared to immediately join the project because of my lack of knowledge for the libraries used within the application.
Before joining the project team, I had the opportunity to familiarize myself with those libraries. There were a couple of online courses that covered those libraries from the beginning, so I jumped into those immediately. The sessions were comprehensive tutorials containing about 6 hours of videos and plenty of worksheets. I watched every single video, took lots of notes, filled with the sheets, asked questions to co-workers, and implemented the examples given. I even viewed some of the videos a few times if something wasn't apparent to me. After about two weeks of going through the courses, I officially joined the project team to begin my work.
It didn't take long for me to realize that I still very unprepared to work on the project.
Get your hands dirty
The issue wasn't that I didn't study the courses enough. The project I joined was already a few months into development, so there was already a lot of code implemented using the libraries I mentioned earlier. The application was nothing like the examples I saw from the course. The sessions I studied were targeted for beginners, using mostly non-existing toy projects that were nowhere near the scope of complexity as for my new tasks. A lot of the course material didn't apply to my work environment.
Regardless of how unprepared I was, I still was placed in the project and had my tasks set out for me, so I had to move ahead. I took the little I knew and started to do the best that I could.
After a few days of toiling away on the project, I started to notice that I was getting better at my tasks. I was able to see where everything was connected, my code was getting better, and I felt I had a solid grasp of the libraries I was completely unfamiliar with - much more than after spending two weeks dedicated to the online courses I took.
Having this insight made it clear that I wasn't going anywhere because I was following a path that was different than mine. Everyone has a different way when doing something for themselves, so we can't take what worked for one person and apply it in our own lives in precisely that manner. The same with the courses I took - they had the purpose of explaining the basics, but in no way reflected any real-life projects, so it was a completely different thing than what I needed.
Why "standalone learning" doesn't work
This failure wasn't the first time it has happened to me. Previously, I would do what I would call standalone learning - if I wanted or needed to learn something, I would dive into studying head-first, only to end up not learning much. I think most of us try to learn new things this way, which is why more often than not we don't get far with our efforts. I found a few reasons why this doesn't work:
- I never had any need for what I was learning: There have been plenty of times where I began to study something new because I was interested in it, but I found that those attempts got me nowhere. It was because I never needed it, for starters. It was more of a "nice to have" thing. When one's time is limited, "nice to haves" are one of the first things to go.
- I wanted to learn everything perfectly: I struggled with perfectionism for a long time. I wouldn't even bother trying if I couldn't get everything right and on the first try. I didn't directly think "This has to be perfect" - my subconscious brain would do that on its own.
- I would get bored: Let's face it - learning by itself can be dreadfully dull. If the material I followed were too dry or didn't have much hands-on work to go along with the studying, I would ditch it as soon as I could.
- I couldn't see what I could do with the material: Theory has its place, but by itself, it's tough to remain energetic about a topic if you can't find a way to apply it in a real-world situation. Being unclear with how to use new knowledge is very common in study material for beginners, where the instructors would throw everything at you but never told you how the pieces fit.
I was able to tackle all of those problems with what I call on-demand learning
On-demand learning is the way to go
When you can to embark on a new path, there's rarely a guaranteed way that you'll succeed down that road because it'll be unique for you. As I mentioned, everyone has their way, so we can't do all the things they did if we want to succeed. I would argue that if you try to copy someone the same as they did it, there's a higher chance that you will fail. The way you do something successfully might be the cause of failure for someone else. It also works the other way - what didn't work for someone might be the key ingredient you needed to propel yourself to new heights.
That's why on-demand learning is the best way to learn anything new. No matter what path you're taking at this moment, it's completely different from what anyone has done before you. No one's situation is ever the same, whether it be motivation, physical environment, time management or personal desires. There's no recipe book for what you'll encounter along the way, so figuring things out as you go is a strategy that will ensure that you'll be able to move forward and learn much more effectively than with other methods.
I've written before about how learning by itself will keep you stuck in place. I felt into the learning trap with those online courses. I was able to correct it when I began working on the project, which also made me notice that I was both learning and doing at the same time. It wasn't my intention to do that, but it happened effortlessly.
Doing two things at once is an added benefit, but the key here is that not only you will be learning at a quicker pace, but what you learn will stick with you for far longer than with just learning.
It's not always going to be a smooth road, but it will get better, and you'll enjoy the ride more
It might sound that I'm saying that learning as you go will instantly make your journey a lot more pleasant, but it really won't. In fact, it will probably be a bit more frustrating, especially in the beginning. There will be a lot of times when you'll get stuck trying to do something you're learning, and it'll feel like you're completely wasting your time. You'll want to revert to learning mode because it will feel more comfortable that way. But all you're doing is tricking your brain into thinking that you're accomplishing your goals when in reality you're stuck in place.
There is no "secret sauce" that will help you avoid those moments. In any new endeavor you take, frustration will be inevitable. The key is to expect disappointments, and if you work at it, those difficulties will eventually disappear. It may not leave instantly or even in a few days. Still, it won't last forever. This way of thinking might be a massive mindset shift for you to make. But it will be necessary for you to reach heights you never imagined.
In the long haul, you'll be much better off going through those moments because you'll have the knowledge and experience needed to progress. There's no better learning tool than learning from stumbling through your path. Once you get over the frustrating times and gain all that valuable experience, there will be moments where you will be thrilled with not only learning but seeing it put to use for you. These moments have boosted my motivation and enthusiasm more than anything I've tried, and I'm sure it will also work wonders for you.
Tips for your Practical Good
If you want to unleash your learning abilities to places you never thought you could take it, try these tips for yourself:
- Determine if what you're learning now is something you need or want. We often think we need or have a strong desire to do something new, but usually, it's just something we would kind of like to do. Not having a clear direction on where you want to take your learnings will eventually end up in failure. You need to be honest with yourself and separate your wants from your needs. Save the wants for a later time, or discard them altogether.
- Apply what you know right now. If there is something that you truly need or want to accomplish, then do one thing related to that right now. Start a conversation in a new language if you're going to begin learning and applying that language. If you want to learn interior decoration, find a small corner in your home and start organizing. There are little things you can start going with just about anything new.