Source

Learning something new? Start by going to the source. Learn the fundamentals there, then use third-party sources as needed.

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Audio

I’d like to share with you a tip that I’ve found useful, whenever I’m trying to learn about or understand something new:

Go to the source!

For example, when trying to learn about a new software framework, which I was recently, rather than Googling and opening up third-party websites (e.g. people blogging about the framework, Twitter posts about it, etc), I found it much more useful to go directly to the official website of that framework.

I think this could useful for many things apart from software, of course.

For example, if I were trying to emigrate to a particular country, and wanted to know about the requirements and procedures, I would probably be better off starting with the official immigration website of the government of that country. Sure, online forums, blogs, chatrooms, etc. could supplement my knowledge. But the most important, reliable, factual and up-to-date information would be that given by the source – in the case, the government itself.

Going to the primary source is a really good first step to take in learning about anything new, because it gives you a solid, usually internally-consistent, grounding in that thing. (This can be useful strategically, in determining whether the thing in question even matters or applies to you.) Once your mind has that solid grounding, it’s easier to then know where to shop around, and what parts to shop for, when you start to supplement your knowledge with third-party materials (e.g. your blogs, forums, etc).

One of the problems I’ve encountered with relying too much on third-party sources is that you can get caught up in their agendas. That is, the solutions, frameworks, etc. that they propose may be geared toward some product or service that they’re trying to sell, or a view that they’re interested in pushing. These aren’t necessarily opposed to your interests, but they’re not necessarily where you want to start, when trying to fundamentally understand the thing in question, and decide what relationship you want to have with it.

For example, someone who’s blogging about BitCoin might have their own take on it, which is aligned with what they’re trying to sell or do, for example, a payments service. Their take on the world isn’t necessarily not good for you, but you might want to start out by going to a more primary source of information about BitCoin, such as the official BitCoin website, to understand how BitCoin actually works. Then your judgement is less likely to be clouded by what a particular payments provider wants you to think. Once you have this foundation of knowledge on BitCoin, you’re in a better position to choose a payments provider (if you even need one). You’re in a better position to know how to judge a provider, how to differentiate between competing providers, what metrics to use in doing so, etc.

BitCoin is just an example. I’m sure you can think of something else you’re trying to learn. If it’s a person, perhaps a historical figure, why not go straight to the writings of that person and/or of people who were in close contact with them or knew them well? Once you have that grounding, then you can start to work your way outward to third-party sources on that figure. If it’s a language, find someone who speaks the language natively, or even move to a country where that language is predominantly spoken.

In summary: if you want to learn something, get as close as possible, as early as possible, to that thing itself!

And with that, happy 2018, folks! 🎇

Integrate

Connecting new information to old can help you to learn, understand, recall and apply your knowledge.

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Have you ever had a hard time learning about some subject? Perhaps it’s a course you’re studying, perhaps it’s someone at work trying to teach you something.

And they’re talking and talking, and you’re hearing mountains of words and language, and you feel like you’re “drinking from a hosepipe” – i.e. receiving lots of information, but not understanding it, or forgetting it, or getting confused about what it means.

The funny thing is, there are so many things in life that we don’t seem to have any difficulty remembering. Think about the route you take to work or school. You probably don’t have too much difficulty remembering that. You can call to mind the way to the front-door of the house where you live, perhaps the street it’s on, the bus stop you go to and the bus that you take. Or take your circle of friends. You probably recall their names, facts about them, even how you met them (if you weren’t too young to remember).

We are able to remember some kinds of knowledge, and yet we seem to struggle immensely with others.

I would like to share one technique I’ve found useful, when a subject seems difficult to learn. I refer to it as “integration”, but there are probably other names for it already.

When I’m hearing some new piece of information and I really want to understand it, I try to connect it to something that I already know. And, especially (if possible) I try to connect it directly to myself, in a way that means something to me.

So, say I’m learning a new fact about how climate works in one particular part of the world, I’ll try to connect that fact to something I already know about climate, or about the world. And I try to discern how that fact is relevant to me, personally.

Often, (at least, initially), I don’t see a connection. It feel like a piece of floating, arbitrary data. And this is where, if possible, I ask questions to try and find that connection. So, if someone’s telling me about a climate phenomenon, I might ask them a question such as: well I thought climate was about ‘X’ or ‘Y’. But this fact you’re telling me about, how does it relate to that? How does the temperature in this place relate to the fact that it’s more humid in the tropics, near the middle of the equator? (A “fact”, or at least, an item of information, that I already grasp.)

By asking such questions, I’m testing the things I’m hearing and discovering connections between the new information and the information I already recall. And if something I already knew turns out to have been a flawed understanding (at least from one perspective) then I’ll correct that, and, in doing so, build a nice “bridge” or “transition” between the old knowledge and the new knowledge.

Another kind of question I’ll ask is why this thing is being taught to me, or why it exists. So, say someone is informing me about a particular design technique. I’ll ask the question: why does this technique exist in the first place? Why not just do something simpler like ‘X’ or ‘Y’? By asking that question, the other person is called upon to explain to me further why that technique exists, what problem it solves, and in the process of doing so, I get a much stronger link between my previous understanding, and the new understanding. Rather than taking it as a given that this new technique happens to exist, I can form an understanding of why it exists and where it fits in to the “network” of other techniques.

One benefit to this “integration” technique is that it become easier to remember things. Just as when you go out your front door, you transition onto the street, and then to the bus stop, then onto the bus, etc., in a sequence or chain of knowledge, I find that I can remember things I’ve learned by following the connections I’ve made. Say I’ve learned a new design technique. If I find myself in a situation, which calls to mind some piece of knowledge I already have about design, and I connected that knowledge to a new technique, then I’ll recall that new technique at the right time, and perhaps apply it to the situation. I’ve got that information encoded mentally in such a way that it comes to me at the right time.

And that leads me to another benefit: recalling material at the right time. When you learn something new, which you worry about storing in your memory, you might also feel concerned about retrieving it at the right time and right context. I find that I’m much more likely to remember something, say a solution to a problem, at the right time, if I’ve integrated or connected it to the knowledge I currently draw upon, to solve that problem.

This technique isn’t guaranteed to work in every situation. I have found that there are times when the information is flowing much too fast. In those cases I’ll often try to quickly write down words and phrases for use later, perhaps to research later. Or I’ll try to get the information in a written format, which I can read at leisure.

I’m also sure that there are kinds of knowledge that can’t be connected to what one already knows. In areas like that, there are probably other techniques to look at using, for learning. Or perhaps there are some things that cannot be learned, at least, not in a conceptual manner.

But, for what it’s worth, I’ve found integrating to be highly useful in a wide range of learning scenarios.

Credits

The ideas presented in this article draw some inspiration from the learning theories and tools (such as concept mapping) of Joseph D. Novak, expressed in books such as Learning How to Learn (1984).

Consumer

Is your employer only a consumer? Is your barista only a producer? What happens when we flip these two categories?

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Who is a consumer and who is a producer? For some people, it’s economic common-sense that, in economic dealings between people and organisations (such as employment) we are either producing/creating/making things or purchasing/borrowing/consuming things.

I have found it interesting to mentally swap those categories. I will present two very familiar forms of producer-consumer relationships that you likely have experienced.

Let’s start with the workplace. Say you are an employee and you report to a manager. You think of your manager as someone in a position of power, as a kind of customer. You are offering them your services, applying your time and effort, and they are directing you to perform those services, and directing the outputs of those services elsewhere, e.g. to their managers, to customers, etc.

Now take an opposite kind of relationship. Say you are shopping to purchase an item. You walk into one of the big branded stores and you look at the items and then pick up a product. And as you’re walking out the door with your purchase, you hope to yourself it works properly, doesn’t break, and that there’s some kind of warranty if it does. It seems that the producer is in a position of power, able to determine how your product is designed, built and supported. Or suppose you’re ordering coffee from a cafe. You can somewhat determine the product you’ll be getting. E.g. what kind of coffee, how strong, etc.

Now let’s try flipping these two kinds of relationship.

Imagine the ways that your employer or client might be thought of as a producer. The ways in which they have you work. Perhaps management methods. Perhaps ideas. Perhaps frameworks of ideas, ideologies. Perhaps principles, best-practices, etc. Also, workspaces within which you work, optimised for your work activities. And equipment optimised for your use.

Thinking of these and other things as things either produced or provided by your employer and consumed by you, as an employee, can open up new ideas and a new space of opportunity. Those things might be seen as a class of assets, which you could harness and use in various ways, whether or not intended by the supplier of those assets, your employer.

For example, imagine applying a visual design technique you learned on-the-job, at your place of employment, to design a birthday card for your child!

How about the other side, thinking about the “producers” as a consumers? Imagine that the big-brand supplier collects data about you, which they use to improve their products or processes. The cafe perhaps does something similar, to improve the service they’re offering you. In a sense, they’re consuming from you – personal information that opens up marketing possibilities, feedback about their products, experiences, ideas. Though you’re paying them for a product, in a sense, they’re consuming from you.

Could this understanding of the relationship also open up possibilities? Perhaps you can have some impact or influence over a consumption item.

Perhaps you identify and sell an improvement, either to the “producer” or to a third-party, such as a venture capitalist. Or perhaps you smile and crack a joke with the barista, which brightens their day, lightens their load and improves the quality of the coffee!

So whatever kind of marketplace relationship springs to mind, try flipping it in your mind, and see how that changes the landscape and perhaps opens some new doors.

Revisit

Revisiting your past, including your career history, may give you valuable insights, increase your comfort/confidence and help you to steer your future.

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Have you ever revisited something from the past?

Perhaps a restaurant you hadn’t eaten at for a while, or a suburb you hadn’t visited, or a friend or family member from the past, who you hadn’t seen for a while. People you’d worked with, employers who hired you or clients you did work for.

When you revisited that place or person, perhaps some old feelings came back. Or maybe it was fresh – you noticed some changes and it even felt like a new experience.

It can be an interesting exercise to mentally revisit experiences of places and people.

You can apply this idea of mentally revisiting to your career history. You can recall the details of the jobs you held.  What you did. Who you worked with. The way decisions were made. The way conflicts were managed. The way the team worked together. The end results.

Remembering those details can give you some fresh insights – insights about yourself and others, about why you were hired, about why particular decisions were made and about the general landscape of your profession. You can identify common elements in your career history, which reveal, for example, where your strengths and weaknesses lie, what you enjoy / don’t enjoy and what you, as a person, bring to a situation.

One category of experience you can re-visit is the challenge. Perhaps a person or a thing might have troubled you in the past. Maybe it was a difficult job. Maybe it was a person who you found difficult to get along with. Maybe it was a relationship that went through some turbulence. By revisiting a challenge you had, you can gain insights into why that challenge arose, how you dealt with it, how you might deal with it the same (or differently) today. You might realise some way to avoid such a challenge in the future.

One of the cool things about going back and revisiting a past experience is that you can think about it with fresh eyes. You can take your present self, as you are now, and project that self back into the past, and that can give you new insights into that situation. You might assume that you learned everything that could be learned about an experience at the time you had it, and there’s nothing more to be learned. But there may actually be a wealth of new things to be learned, from your present perspective.

Another cool benefit of revisiting a past experience is that you can become more comfortable with it. Perhaps the experience was distressing or uncomfortable in some way. Perhaps it was confusing and you weren’t able to grasp exactly what was happening at the time or why. By going back to it again, now that you’re out of it, you can become more comfortable and acquainted with that experience. Rather than being a “black-box”, a past experience can be something you begin to understand, to learn about, and to treat just like an old friend.

And becoming more comfortable with your career history can give you a shot of confidence now, in your current work situation, and it can help you to guide and steer your career for the future.

You carry your memories with you. They are always accessible, and can be pulled up practically at will. So why not use them?