This article was part of The Rising Dev newsletter issue #5, published on Mar 29, 2021.
As a software developer, you’ve already committed to life-long learning; it’s the only way to flourish in tech while growing your career. To stop learning is to start falling behind.
Throughout my 20+ years as a developer, it was easy to spot the folks who prioritized learning and those that did not. More problematic was spotting the people who went a step further, who focused on learning to learn. They optimized how they learned to cut out the noise and produce maximum returns for their efforts—these folks are rare.
When I found these folks, I befriended them and focused my attention on learning everything I could. This not only accelerated my learning, it accelerating the number of opportunities that came my way.
Below are strategies I picked up from people and while researching how to be a more effective learner.
It still amazes me that people are more inclined to tackle mountains over hills or boulders over smaller rocks or pebbles. Maybe it’s in our nature as humans to tackle the ‘big thing,’ but rarely will this give you the best results.
Be specific about what you want and need to learn—write it down. And be clear about why you want to learn it; what will the knowledge give you? Write that down as well. This strategy is a small system that is going to help you reduce decision fatigue.
It seems simple, yet most people won’t do this. They will tackle the mountain instead, never quite sure if their path is the right one, leading to frustration and discouragement.
Knowing the small thing that you want to learn and why you want to learn it creates constraints. It makes it easier to filter out the mountain of noise and distraction so that you can focus on traversing one hill of many.
People represent the most potent learning accelerator, in my opinion, yet most people aren’t very intentional about it.
Find the people a few steps ahead of you and share your learning goal with them. Ask them questions about how they tackled your subject. Ask if they are open to giving you feedback as you progress.
Here’s how finding people ahead of me has helped:
- People learn and teach differently. I don’t always know what will make a subject click for me. Multiple educational sources, including different people, increases the likelihood that one of those sources fits how my brain works.
- People with experience know what matters. The Pareto Principle applies here. People who have done the work know the 20% you should focus on, which will give you 80% of the results.
- People can be part of feedback loops. Learning is like sailing; you don’t go in a straight line. Instead, you catch the wind and zig-zag toward your end goal. People with experience can help you predict where the winds will blow next.
If you only use one strategy from this article, this is the one. People are force-multipliers; never forget that.
When you struggle at something, your brain responds by increasing the strength of the brain signals you need to make things stick. At least that’s what some of the research has shown: The Neuroscience Behind Productive Struggle.
The hard part is that to struggle intentionally, you need to be bad at something. Most of us shy away from the things we are bad at and therefore never unlock this increased strength in our brain signals.
I’ve had many conversations with software developers who feel trapped in tutorial hell, where they can’t seem to break away from the video or blog tutorial and build something on their own. They get stuck, feel mentally blocked, get frustrated, and either run back to the tutorials or give up entirely.
Here’s the thing, that stuck, mentally blocked, and frustrating learning stage is where the work is happening. Yet few of us ever seek out this stage intentionally or surrender to just sitting in it for a while. Imagine what might happen if you did.
Read this article and some of the referenced research it links to for more. The article also has a few tips on how to struggle productively to enhance your learning.
There is a thing called the learning curve, which includes something called “the dip.” If you’ve never heard of it, here’s what it looks like:
Seth Godin wrote an excellent book on this called The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick). They explain the concept in more detail, and they describe the scenarios for when you should quit or keep going.
Successful people don’t just ride out the Dip. They don’t just buckle down and survive it. No, they lean into the Dip. They push harder, changing the rules as they go. Just because you know you’re in the Dip doesn’t mean you have to live happily with it. Dips don’t last quite as long when you whittle at them. ~Seth Godin, The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick)
Most folks don’t make it past the dip; they trick themselves into believing it’s a cliff vs. a valley.
Recognize that the dip is coming, that it will be uncomfortable, and that mastery and expertise may be waiting on the other side.
I’ve always struggled with consistency. I had decided that it was better to be flexible and adaptive to the terrain instead of consistently chipping away at my goals over and over again.
I’ve changed my mind. When I think back at my successes throughout my career, consistency was the engine. I’m now embracing the strategy of consistency more intentionally; you should embrace it too.
Jim Collins is the author of Great by Choice, a book about companies that thrive through uncertainty and chaos. Jim Collins describes a concept called the “20 Mile March”, where they explain the advantage of having a focused goal that you consistently and repeatedly take action on.
The “20 Mile March” concept was about companies, but it applies to individuals as well, in my opinion. To learn more about this concept read this.
Consistency concerning a focused learning goal can build tremendous momentum; this can get you through some of the uncertainty and chaos.
No matter what you’re currently trying to learn, the strategies above can help you accelerate that learning. If these learnings are instrumental to your career growth, then leveling up means embracing these strategies.
- Know what you want to learn and why you want to learn it—write it down where you can see it daily.
- Find the people that are a few steps ahead of you and ask questions.
- Let yourself struggle, get comfortable letting your brain stretch itself.
- Prepare for the dip; understand that it will get frustrating sometimes, and you’ll need to push through.
- Stay ruthlessly consistent; stacking the small repeated actions is how you flourish.
Remember to stay curious. As you grow and rise, you will learn more about yourself. If you remain open to these new learnings, you can tweak and optimize the above strategies into something unique to your learning style.
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