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! 🎇

Slow

Slowing down can actually help you speed up! How? By enabling you to focus and unlocking the foundations of your knowledge domain.

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In today’s world, there seems to be much usage of words like “rapid”, “change”, “quick”, “speed”, “fast”, “instant”, “agile”, “responsive”, etc.

I have noticed that, when the meanings of these words get mixed in with emotions and thought process of work, they can lead to a feeling of being hurried or harried, of rushing, of deadlines, of insufficient time. The word “deadline” itself seems kind of scary, carrying the connotation of “dead”!

Because we feel that there isn’t enough time, often quite rightly, we are forced to go fast and rush. That in turn can lead to a feeling of pressure. That we’re trying to work quickly, but there isn’t enough time, so we are stretched or pressured.

However, I have found that when I am actually going fast – delivering lots of work rapidly and on-time, I don’t feel hurried or harried at all. In fact, I feel quite calm, relaxed and that there’s time, and I don’t feel too pressured or stretched.

So what does it really mean to be rapid, agile, responsive, fast?

Firstly, I have found that when you put pressure on yourself, you arc up, your body becomes stiff, your breathing becomes shallower. It becomes more difficult to focus, and you start to have your focus split or fragmented between a lot of different things. This loss of focus, in turn, leads to a loss of productivity and a loss of sustainable productive energy. So, while I can pump out work in a panic for a short period of time, over a longer period, it becomes unsustainable.

Secondly, I have found that the fragmentation of focus can lead to a dismantling of the ability to properly understand a problem and a problem-space. That is, because insufficient time has been spent on discovering and then solidly grasping of the foundations of a structure of knowledge, your ability to work at the higher levels of that structure becomes slow, repetitive, inefficient and tedious. You have to repetitively go through multiple iterations of the same problem before identifying the root of it, when you could have discovered the root right from the start, if you thoroughly understood the foundations of what you’re working with.

My solutions?

Firstly, rather than taking on that hurred, pressured mind-set and body language, I have found it generally better, at almost any cost, to relax and take on a cooler disposition and demeanor.

Secondly, I try to reduce the number of elements that I focus on at any one time. For example, instead of trying to deliver an entire three page report all at once, I focus on just writing one really good paragraph. Or, instead of trying to deliver multiple screens of an application, I just focus on one screen, or on one link between two screens. Or, instead of trying to deliver an entire module of code, I just focus on one or two individual functions.

Or, instead of trying to speed-read an entire chapter of a book, I spend a long time reading the first couple of pages, so that I get a very firm grasp of the foundation that the chapter rests on. In this last case, I have found that reading a book this way often leads to mentally “unlocking” the conceptual framework of the book, such that I then understand the contents so well that speed-reading actually works!

When you deliver that small amount of work, you may get a small dopamine kick. You feel a sense of achievement. You might even reward yourself with a treat! (Say, a tasty snack, or drink, or a short break.)

Because you’re reducing your focus to one element at a time, you’re able to deliver more rapidly and responsively. You can deliver a small part rapidly, then another one.

I believe this is the real spirit of many of the ideas of “agile”, “iteration”, etc. It’s not a spirit of pressure, rushing, panic, etc., but rather, of slowing down, identifying one or two things that you can break off and focus on. Those things being small enough that you can deliver them, learn from them, and then decide on your next step as appropriate.

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).