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Nitya Narasimhan, Ph.D
Nitya Narasimhan, Ph.D

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I'm a "Lifelong Beginner". Are you?

Some History

Two weeks ago I wrote up a spur-of-the-moment thread on Twitter about how we are all Lifelong Beginners.

It was a 16-part thread that has attracted 12K views (and counting) with positive feedback. So I thought I'd convert it into a blog post and potentially jumpstart a discussion.

Once you've read it - I'd love to hear from you:

Do you agree with this definition of lifelong beginners?
What other such words can be reclaim in a manner that empowers (instetad of marginalizing) learning?

The Sketchnote Summary

Alt Text

The Thread

I have been thinking about this for a while now .. and I wanted to share my thoughts .. let me know what you think.

My belief:
We are all lifelong beginners. We need to redefine the word as one that empowers people and not undermines or reduces their contribution.

A thread.

The dictionary definition of "beginner" is someone JUST STARTING to learn a skill. While this might be factually true, it might not cover the broader context. Are they learning it for the first time? Are they revisiting it after a period away? Do they know similar things?

The reality is that learning is personalized and contextual. Every person learns differently (visual, auditory, kinesthetic) and their journeys to that starting point are different. Economic disparity plays a role!

We are not (and cannot be) given the same "beginner" label

In tech the term "beginner" can be used (perhaps without intention) as a way to exclude or marginalize people's contributions to a discussion. "Your opinion on X is not as valuable as Y's because you are a beginner in this topic Z"

This fails to understand user JOURNEYS

I want to change that. I want to reclaim "beginner" as a source of pride and value. Because here is the real truth. BEGINNERS ARE PEOPLE WHO ARE STARTING JOURNEYS TO LEARN! They might be taking that journey for the 10th time
Or might be taking a detour from another journey

So they have value in every conversation based on

If each journey is seen in isolation, then we are all beginners. We are all starting new journeys to learn, unlearn, relearn and evolve every day. But if we zoom out and look at the aggregate value of the beginner journeys, exploring the histories of travellers, the intersections where they travel together - and the detours each chooses to take (to give their journeys meaning) ..

It's emergence

And emergence is a powerful tool that uses collective knowledge and experiences to build incredibly resilient and innovative systems of knowledge and discovery. We need to be thinking of beginners as those pioneers on adventures that can create pheromone trails for others

The reality: No individual person knows everything. EVER. There are no experts. There are only people with contextual expertise (e.g., X knows more than Y about topic Z RIGHT NOW because X has been using Z more recently than Y. But Y might have written the first book on Z)

Let's not confuse KNOWLEDGE (understanding of a concept through usage or through familiarity with related ideas) with EXPERTISE (contextual knowledge e.g.., through usage in current time or relevant domain)

We are all experts in something
We are all beginners in EVERYTHING

And this brings me to my Brain and Smithsonian analogy.

The human brain is an elegant, complex, inexplicable and magical entity that we cannot completely fathom however hard we try. There isn't a supercomputer in the galaxy that gets close. Human Brain Facts

It is also resource-constrained. To be effective, it has to make decisions constantly on what to PRIORITIZE for its immediate needs. This is why we have short-term and long-term memory, why we have triggers and responses, why neural networks are pattern detectors at large.

Now look at every person you know - not by their age, gender, ethnicity, skin color, socio-economic status or other label. Instead see each individual as a multi-faceted supercomputer capable of greatness. Their current task (visible profile) is but one facet of potential

Think of each of us as an individual Smithsonian. As large as it appears, and as many faceted galleries as we see on display - WHAT YOU SEE IS LESS THAN 2% OF THE ACTUAL KNOWLEDGE STORE THAT IT IS CAPABLE OF SHOWING

At any given point in time, the "expertise" we are showing is like a themed exhibit in one of the Smithsonian museums. We trawl our memories, dust off relevant artifacts, polish them by (by practicing or applying new techniques) and then bring them out for use in projects

And hopefully this ties my thoughts back to the image (at the bottom of this thread). We are all Smithsonians with vast repositories of knowledge that we just need to access, refine and build on - every time a relevant project arises.

We are all Beginners with journeys to learn

⚡️ Summary: ⚡️

Hello! 👋🏽 I'm Nitya. I've spent 25+ years in research, development, community, academia, startups and life. I have a lot of knowledge in my vaults but I choose to exhibit my advocacy artifacts this season.

I am a lifelong beginner.
And my journey is fabulous.
Join me!

Top comments (15)

juanfrank77 profile image
Juan F Gonzalez

But if someone is a "lifelong beginner" then when is going to become a pro at something?
I'm probably nitpicking on semantics here but I feel that the term "beginner" gives a wrong connotation (i.e. someone who starts doing a lot of things but doesn't get very far in any of them.)

nitya profile image
Nitya Narasimhan, Ph.D

That was my point.

Words have semantics which give them power.
And when words are used to gatekeep rather than empower, they can become dangerous.
And it is good for us to DEFINE what they mean when we use them.

You have given the term "beginner" the meaning of someone who does a lot of things but doesn't get very far in them. Who decides what "very far" means?

As an example: I have been in tech 20+ years and worked on many different platforms & languages. I did my PhD using C/C++ but that was decades ago. Since then I've worked in Java, JS, Dart, Python etc. If I were to revisit C/C++ should I call myself a pro? (I did after all use it for 7 years and built a system with it) . No - because I have the knowledge but not recent expertise. I can however call myself a beginner in the context of starting a new journey where I am using it in something again.

I will leave you with this.
Words have power and set context.
We should redefine BEGINNER to be a positive word which indicates the start of a learning journey.
We should set the CONTEXT by having the beginner clearly articulate what the purpose of that journey is, and what the destination will be. And if we can do that, then more people will find tech an inclusive place where all journeys are welcome.

juanfrank77 profile image
Juan F Gonzalez

Even though I completely agree with your overall idea, I still think that redefining terms and make everyone accept them it's not a worthwhile pursuit. I much rather use different terms to describe things.

If we're to make tech a place for everyone to be in, not only should we help them get in but also help them be the best they can be once they're inside the industry.

And of course, words have the power to define someone's world so better use the ones that can make the most difference for that person and others around them.

Thread Thread
nitya profile image
Nitya Narasimhan, Ph.D • Edited

I have to agree on this - what I really like about what you are saying is that you see ways for us to shift the conversation to make it inclusive without focusing on the terms.

So YES! And if you come up with some terminology AND activities/actions that you think is useful, do write about it and tag me and I would love to amplify. At the end of the day, if we help more people understand that tech is a lifelong learning journey, we will have done good! ♥️

Thread Thread
juanfrank77 profile image
Juan F Gonzalez

At the end of the day, if we help more people understand that tech is a lifelong learning journey, we will have done good!

100% agree with that sentiment. Lifelong learning is the greatest pursuit IMO. I think is an advantage that the tech landscape changes that fast cuz people will have to eventually realize that going out of school/college is where the real learning begins.

I will keep coming up with ideas on how to talk about this type of topics in a way that is accessible to most people without the "bad" connotations that they may have had.

siddheshshankar profile image
Siddhesh Shankar

Most of the beginners lose their patience in early stage while learning a programming language. A beginner can become pro at something if he/she is given/or grabs the right opportunity to use their knowledge.
Agreed upon the sentiment that you have expressed in the post, beginner is always seen with suspicion of having very little knowledge. Point here is "Give him the opportunity to work, So that he can grow further."

nitya profile image
Nitya Narasimhan, Ph.D • Edited

Yes yes yes.

And the reality is that TRUE beginners (those who get into tech and are beginning journeys with a purpose) will PERSIST and become other things (pros, experts, influencers - whatever the popular "label" of the day is) - given the TIME (to grow their understanding) and OPPORTUNITY (to apply it in real world uses).

So the call to action for all of us in tech is simple:

If you see a "beginner" (starting a journey) - given them a lift to their destination (speed up that journey). Give them companionship, advice and support - make the journey fun and meaningful.

And if you have already made that journey, then turn around and guide someone else. Pay it forward. Because the more people who tread the path, the more likely we can then forge new paths to the next peak. The other analogy I love here is mountain climbing.

Beginners are those starting from one basecamp and going to the next. Each person has their own destination - some want to get to the next basecamp, and then return down and go climb another mountain. Some will keep coming back again and again until - basecamp by basecamp - they finally reach their Everest.

And then there are the sherpas.
Who have done this journey more times than they can count.
And are there just to help each new beginner make their journey a bit more productive.
We all have that in us.

siddheshshankar profile image
Siddhesh Shankar

Totally agree on this😊

mrshawnhum profile image
Shawn Humphreys

Most people think when you leave high school, college, etc. That is when your learning is complete.

But then, there is a small amount of individuals like us developers that understand that you never stop learning.

nitya profile image
Nitya Narasimhan, Ph.D • Edited

As I encounter more diverse people (and as I get older) I have begun to realize that the most valuable folks are those who have not just understood this but actively gone out to share those insights. During the COVID chaos, I have been remarkably impressed by the inventiveness and resilience of teachers for instance. (ex: check out EdCamp) - they have long known that they need to constantly be reinventing themselves to stay relevant in the digital education space.

So I agree that developers value continuous learning
And I would also say there are people in every walk of life who realize that you never stop learning.

I have however realized that there is PRIVILEGE in being able to learn - I can only do this because I am at a point where i have resources for childcare, a spouse and home to provide some financial security etc. There are many who want to learn but need to work 2-3 jobs to make ends meet

One of my goals is to use essays, events and community interactions to pay that forward.
To make everyone feel learning is in their grasp and there are people to help them ♥️

mrshawnhum profile image
Shawn Humphreys

Absolutely spot on!

sreejitkar profile image
Sreejit Kar

This is true in so so so so many ways

sunilvijay profile image
Sunil Vijay

Very true 💯

Sloan, the sloth mascot
Comment deleted
nitya profile image
Nitya Narasimhan, Ph.D

Exactly. What are you learning these days?