We live in a very exciting time. Never before has education been so cheaply available to the masses (if not free). The medium, itself, has made tectonic shifts from a classroom setting, to blogs, screencasts and complete university classes, as a set of videos and interactive forums. Given these resources, there’s absolutely no excuse not to dive in and learn. However, with such a wealth of resources, filtering through the options can often become overwhelming. In this article, I will outline a simple process to kick-start your education.
Although my suggestions will primarily pertain to software development, these principles are certainly applicable to other fields.
1. Overcoming Inertia
Learning something new always begins by first overcoming the inertia to make the first move. This is the same inertia you feel when you want to change the TV channel, but the remote isn't nearby! Thankfully, there are some simple techniques to get excited and motivated. One that has worked really well for me is the concept of Tiny Habits. Rather than becoming overwhelmed by the task at hand, take a tiny step and do something to get started. Using the "get the TV remote" example, start by wiggling your toes, then bend forward, then push yourself away from the couch. Next, try to fall off onto the floor, and finally get up. By following a series of tiny steps, you will overcome your inertia and the task won't seem as overwhelming. This same idea can be applied to learning new skills. It’s all about tiny steps.
2 – Watch the Pros
The first step, when picking up a new skill, is to determine what to learn. This could be anything you feel passionate about, and have a genuine interest in exploring further. It’s important to have this strong inclination, as it will provide you with the necessary fuel, during those low times. Once you decide what to learn, be it a new programming language, an application framework, or a tool, research inspiring work done by their respective communities. You may find it on YouTube, Vimeo, HackerNews, blogs or even from one of your Twitter friends. Reviewing what others have done will give you confidence that you, too, can do it!
3 – Let the Information Flow Begin
Once you cross the stage of convincing yourself about the thing you want to learn, it’s time that become a sponge, and start absorbing knowledge. Begin with some Google searching on "beginner tutorials" related to your topic. As you know, Nettuts+ offers hundreds upon hundreds of tutorials. Check here as well. StackOverflow is one place where you will surely find links to a plethora of resources. Alternatively, Quora is an excellent place to search for answers. Once you sift through these links, you may wish to take a more concentrated dose by looking for the best books on the topic. Personally I refer to Amazon for hunting down highly rated books.
4 – Listen and Watch
As you delve deeper into the pool of knowledge, you will want to add other forms of information – namely, podcasts and screencasts. I encourage you to browse through iTunesU, which offers complete classes on a variety of topics from some of the best institutions in the world. This is particularly helpful for those who prefer an academic setting.
You can also watch conference presentations, such as Google IO on YouTube, or Confreaks for free!
5 – Time for Action
The best way to learn is by doing.
Okay, you’ve read countless tutorials, watched videos, and have a better understanding of the technology that you’ve been hoping to learn. What now? Well, it’s time to put your knowledge to the test. Ultimately, the best way to learn is by doing.
Pick a personal project that you can build using this new technology. Design some simple features and implement them. You will most definitely hit some stumbling blocks. When this happens, research the solution on StackOverflow or Google. You are now on a journey to become an expert in that technology. The more failures and road blocks you encounter, the wiser you will be. There is a saying that "the experts are ones who have made the most mistakes." It means they’ve tried crazy things and pushed the limits of a technology. As a result, they’ve acquired an intimate understanding of how it works. With such insight, they are able to bend the tech to their will and wield Jedi powers (for good, of course).
These powers are also within your reach.
6 – Blogging
As you embark on your journey, it’s helpful to chronicle the steps (or missteps) you took along the way. Blogs are easily the most popular form of expression in the tech community. It’s part of our DNA. When you put a pen to your learnings, you’re forcing yourself to become more cohesive in your thoughts, bringing some structure into the dispersed pieces of knowledge that you have accumulated. Who knows, in the process, you just might be educating someone else on the Internet. Pay it forward when you can.
If you’d like to take things a step further (as writers do every day here on Nettuts+), can take this a step further and create screencasts, which is preferred by most visual learners. Overall, blogging helps you build your communication skills, which is as important as the technology you are learning.
7 – Feel the Pulse
Technology matures when people do crazy and sometimes unthinkable things.
Social Networks have become a universal way of staying in touch and discovering new things. Twitter and Facebook are the primary suspects for information, but there are more focused websites, like the previously mentioned Quora, that have a wide-ranging set of topics, which people may vote and comment on. It’s a great place to find answers and opinions from well-known individuals with real-life experiences. In fact, a quick search on Quora for other perspectives on learning, reveals an interesting set of results.
Scanning the ever-growing set of questions on StackOverflow can also be a fun way to review the way in which others are pushing the limits of a particular technology. In fact, technology matures when people do crazy and sometimes unthinkable things with it.
If you want to feel the pulse of a technology, and determine whether it’s worth learning, try a search on StackOverflow to see the breadth and depth of the community. The Most Voted, Featured questions are excellent candidates for this sort of exploration. You can also carry out a similar exploration on GitHub.
8 – Meetups and Conferences
Although social networks are great, nothing can substitute real human connection. It is quite likely that you have a Meetup group in a place near you, where you’ll find several like-minded folks. You will learn about interesting projects that others are working on, while also getting some of your tricky problems solved!. On a related note, conferences, too, are a great place to share experiences and enrich your already growing skill-set.
9 – GitHub
GitHub is the iconic landmark for the world of open-source projects. It’s a treasure trove of knowledge and creativity, expressed in the form of code. Once you feel comfortable with a particular technology, your next step should be to explore GitHub to find interesting projects. Read the source code. Read as much as you can. In doing so, you can learn a variety of things, such as:
- How to organize large projects
- Interesting libraries that projects are using
- Code patterns and overall design
- Documentation style
- Testing patterns
- Solutions to odd issues, pointed out in the Issues section of the project
All of this knowledge is just waiting to be devoured. Interestingly, and to your benefit, it only comes with a simple price tag: curiosity.
10 – Concentrated Learning
If you worry that the process outlined above is too slow, you might also try a fast-track approach. You may have heard about the "Learn X in 24 hours", but that is not what I am referring to. A more pragmatic time-line is probably a few weeks. If that seems reasonable, you can try something like Seven Languages in Seven Weeks or Seven Databases in Seven Weeks. Although these books refer to languages and databases, you could do the same with other technologies.
A slightly different style would be to learn things the "hard way". The idea here is to accept upfront that nobody can master a skill unless it is practiced daily. So to gain expertise, you practice by working through countless exercises. In a similar vein, you also have Katas and Koans, that encourage solving problems in the language of your choice. These will introduce you to concepts and techniques that may initially be alien to you. That’s the point! If you really want to displace yourself from your comfort zone, give them a shot!
Learn an Orthogonal Skill
Your right-brain processes information in a very different fashion.
Programming is primarily a left-brain activity. It leverages the analytical part of the brain that looks for a step-by-step approach to solving problems. To appreciate the power of the right-brain, take up a creative activity, such as painting, 3D-modeling, origami, playing an instrument, or even building photo books out of your family albums. In fact, programming requires a great deal of creativity. You might have already experienced this, if you’ve ever found solutions to obtuse problems in your sleep. This is because your right-brain processes information in a very different fashion, and can compile ideas from all over the place. Andy Hunt, from the pragmatic bookshelf, wrote a book on this topic: Pragmatic Thinking and Learning: Refactor Your Wetware. If you want to be firing on all synapses, pick up a skill orthogonal to what you already do.
Acquiring a new skill is always exciting. It’s the start of a new experience that will shape your thinking. But first, you must overcome your inertia. Once you do, your journey to absorb knowledge from every facet of the web begins. I hope that the process outlined above has given you some ideas for approaching this long road.
If you have a different approach to learning, I’d love to learn more about it. Feel free to leave a comment, while I leave you with these inspiring links: