Category Archives: learning

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Good enough, good, awesome: Thinking about what I want to get to

You don’t have to be awesome in everything. I’m not even sure you can. Time spent one thing is time not spent doing everything else.

I like deliberately deciding that I’m going to be okay but not stellar in a particular field. Then I don’t beat myself up about the gap between what I can see and what I can do.

2014-02-27 Art #goals #drawing

2014-02-27 Art #goals #drawing

Drawing / Art
Goal: Good enough
Currently: Mediocre / good enough

I don’t need to draw realistic, impressive drawings. In fact, simplicity helps me make things less intimidating. As I tell people, I want to draw just good enough so that people think, “Hah! I can do better than this!”

Some ways I can improve are:

  • Practise lettering and playing with letter forms
  • Get better at showing visual hierarchy through space, size, weight, and decorations
  • Practise drawing everyday objects
2014-02-27 Automation #goals #automation

2014-02-27 Automation #goals #automation

Automation
Goal: Awesome
Currently: Good enough; better than people around me

Life is too short to waste time on boring, repetitive actions. Besides, it’s fun turning a task into a program or process. If I can’t eliminate time-consuming tasks, I may as well figure out how to automate them.

Some ways I can improve are:

  • Really dig into AutoHotkey and other tools
  • Learn more about Python for scripting
  • Explore Ruby gems for dealing with various APIs
  • Look into using Selenium to automate more browser actions
2014-02-27 Delegation #goals #delegation

2014-02-27 Delegation #goals #delegation

Delegation 
Goal: Awesome
Currently: Good enough; better than people around me

I also want to get really good at working with other people to make stuff happen. I think this involves having a great process library, building a team, breaking through my hang-ups and excuses, and setting up systems that require less attention. I’m particularly curious about using delegation to improve my skills by exposing and experimenting with differences.

2014-02-27 Design #goals #design

2014-02-27 Design #goals #design

Design
Goal: Good
Currently: Mediocre / good enough

I don’t want to be awesome at design, but being good at it would be nice. I want people to feel like I’ve thought about them and taken their needs or interests into account. I want people to feel at home here.

There are lots of things I can experiment with in terms of improving my blog, so that’s one way I can learn more about design.

2014-02-27 Development #goals #coding

2014-02-27 Development #goals #coding

Development
Goal: Good
Currently: Good enough; possibly falling behind to mediocre

I probably won’t be one of those rockstar build-worldchanging-framework-from-scratch developers, but good development skills can save me a lot of time and frustration. I like making tools, and I want to get better at that. Being more organized and professional about development will also pay off.

Ways to improve:

  • Do more documentation and testing.
  • Learn new frameworks or go deeper into the ones I know.
2014-02-27 Learning from people #goals #my-learning

2014-02-27 Learning from people #goals #my-learning

Learning from people
Goal: Good / Awesome
Hmm. Actually, I might downgrade this to “Goal: Good enough”…
Currently: Mediocre

If I want to learn more than I can fit into my own lifetime, I’ve got to learn from other people. Besides, other people know lots of interesting things, but they struggle to share those things with other people. Since I’m comfortable with writing, trying ideas out, and now podcasting, maybe I can help people get good ideas out into a form other people can learn from.

2014-02-27 Writing #goals #writing

2014-02-27 Writing #goals #writing

Writing
Goal: Awesome
Currently: Good enough

I want to help people learn faster and do more effective stuff. Writing is a good time-saver. If I get the hang of organizing and editing my writing, people can learn without wading through all the text.

Test-driven learning

Mel Chua wrote a blog post about test-driven learning. When you’re learning on your own, you don’t have final exams to study for or a project that you need to submit, but it can be useful to think about objective criteria to show that you’ve learned something. Before you begin, figure out what success looks like. Define it so that it’s precise and objective. It has to be clear to you and other people when you’ve passed the test you’ve set for yourself. That way, you have a specific goal to reach for, and you know when you’ve accomplished it.

If you’re looking for ideas for tests, you might want to check out Bloom’s taxonomy, which gives you different verbs that demonstrate different levels of understanding. For example, you might start off by checking if you simply remember the concepts by being able to list them. The next level above that is demonstrating understanding, and after that, applying it to your own life. With more experience, you can analyze concepts, evaluate approaches, or create new things.

2014-02-12 Test-driven learning

2014-02-12 Test-driven learning

Inspired by Mel’s example, I’ve been thinking about how I can apply test-driven learning to the things that I’m currently focusing on.

For delegation, I can see the progress I’m making towards fully delegating my podcast production process. I’m looking forward to integrating delegation into how I create content, and how I work on tech. I think it’ll be interesting to get the point where I’m coaching other people on delegation, or when I’ve packaged guides and courses on how to do it more effectively. So, objective criteria might be:

  • I’ve successfully delegated “Post show notes” three times.
  • I’ve successfully delegated research, rewriting, and harvesting, each at least three times.
  • I’ve created courses on delegation for self-directed learners, bloggers, podcasters, sketchnoters, or other content creators. (Ideally, other people will have tried this!)

In terms of asking people and learning from them, I think a key step would be being able to list the current areas of focus that I have and the questions that I’m exploring. I’m getting pretty good at reaching out to people based on their Twitter updates or other incidental connections, and a step beyond that would be to make sure that these conversations are followed up with blog posts that explore the ideas in more detail. This is also related to my focus on learning how to connect with people. One thing that can help me connect with people more effectively is to organize people by topic. That way, I can focus on specific groups of people instead of letting my stream be overwhelmed by people who use social media for promotion. In particular, I’m curious about the idea of building relationships with confederates, learning more about what they are actively learning about and sharing whatever resources and ideas that I come across.

  • I’ve organized my Twitter into lists by subject. I regularly review each list for focused updates (one list per day), and I add people based on searches.
  • I’ve posted a question to my mailing list segment of people who are interested in the questions I’m learning about. (Start small!)
  • I have a dashboard showing me my conversations and ideas to follow up on, and I have turned several of those ideas into blog posts.

Packaging is straightforward to measure. I’ve published two free or pay-what-you-want resources in the past two weeks, and it will be interesting to see if I can sustain that rate until I get to 12 of them published. I’m also curious about creating courses that will allow people to track their progress, because I think will make that a lot more manageable for people to learn. Although these things are intrinsically useful and interesting, I also want to invest time in building an audience and reaching out to more people who can find these resources helpful.

  • I’ve created 12 free or pay-what-you-want resources, and I have a resources page that lets people find stuff they’re interested in.
  • I’ve tried out a course or membership plugin on my site, and I’ve converted at least one of the resources to a course.
  • I have a plan for outreach, and I work on it regularly.

Animation is similarly easy to measure. I created a number of short videos explaining things before, so all I have to do is make that a regular practice. Again, a target of 12 short videos seems like a good number.

  • I’ve illustrated a course with short animations.

In terms of business, it’ll be exciting to see where my third fiscal year takes me. It looks like I’ll continue consulting for the next year, so my assessment for myself might include maintaining profitability even with my increased delegation and re-investment, and developing systems around creating and sharing content.

  • I file my next corporate tax return with all my is dotted and all my ts crossed.
  • I’ve posted my analysis and lessons learned about delegation and reinvestment, and my plans for next year.

I’ve written about this before, and every time I do, I learn something new. Other things I’ve learned about testing what you’re learning: sharing is an excellent way to test what you know, projects help you review what you’re learning, and breaking new topics down into small steps makes spiral learning more manageable.

How are you going to test what you’re learning?

Focus and fluency: learning when you’re a fox

One of the things that Ramon Williamson shared in our podcast on Helpers Help Out Episode 8:  The Art of Copywriting for Google Helpouts is picking the one thing you’re going to be known for and focusing on it. It makes sense that he emphasizes it so much, since another thing he likes saying is that your mess is your message, and focus is one of the things he’s been working on.

It reminds me of the saying about the fox and the hedgehog: The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing (Archilocus). It turns out that Isaiah Berlin wrote an essay called The Hedgehog and the Fox about how Tolstoy was more of a fox but really, really thought that he should be a hedgehog, and how messed up that was. I’m basing this on Wikipedia’s summary–it’s on the Internet, so it must be true–since I’m still waiting for the library copy to arrive. It sounds fascinating.

2014-02-08 The fox and the hedgehog
2014-02-08 The fox and the hedgehog

Anyway. We are mostly told that we should be hedgehogs. Focus. Pick a niche. That’s the only way you’re going to be great.

Of course, I can totally hand-wave and say that Improvement is the key organizing principle unifying all the things I’m interested in. Learning is improving the way you improve. Coding is simply an idea frozen in a form the computer can understand. Delegation is about improving processes. Writing and drawing is about helping others improve. Rationality is about improving decision-making. But being interested in improvement is like saying you’re creative or motivated–so generic that it doesn’t say anything. I might as well ‘fess up to the fact that sometimes I’m curious just because I am.

I am a fox. I have many interests. I am getting better at making the most of my foxiness. I resonate with books like Refuse to Choose and Body of Work, and with this quote from an awesome polymath:

I live on Earth at present, and I don’t know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing—a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process—an integral function of the universe.

Buckminister Fuller, I Seem to Be a Verb

If you are also a fox, a wide-ranging learner, maybe we can swap strategies and tips. For example, it helps that my interests tend to build on each other. (I’d use the word “synergistically”, but that’s so 1980s.) Taking notes helps me pick things up again, and it also lets me share along the way. Systems help me keep things going even when my attention is elsewhere. Self-acceptance makes a big difference – when you’re not fighting yourself, you have more energy for going forward.

My learning tends to be shaped by a strategy of picking low-hanging fruit. Things that require low effort/risk and give high rewards are easy choices. Do them first. For the next step, I like focusing on things that require low effort/risk (even if they give low rewards) over things that require more effort/risk with the promise of more rewards. I think it’s because the accumulation of these baby steps often brings you surprisingly close to where you want to go, making things that were previously difficult much more doable. Knowing this inclination, I break high effort, high reward tasks down into things that take less effort.

2014-02-07 Low-hanging fruit
2014-02-07 Low-hanging fruit

One of the interesting and challenging things about learning like a fox is that you’re a beginner over and over again. It can feel a little discouraging to struggle with learning something new while hedgehogs around you are comfortably settled in their expertise. It’s worth it, though. I love that moment when things start to snap together, when your knowledge starts to mesh, and then you can take advantage of more and more connections and then what you’re learning becomes part of the way you think. You become fluent. Maybe not Pulitzer-prize-winning fluent, but “I can say what I mean” fluent, which feels awesome.

This journey never ends, actually, since there’s always more to learn, always another plateau of mediocrity to get through. But it’s still so much fun. I’m working on getting even better at being a beginner so that I can get to that fluency faster. So that’s part of the reason I learn like a fox: I like the challenge of a new topic, and I love the ways ideas connect with previous knowledge.

2014-02-08 Learning and fluency

2014-02-08 Learning and fluency

What are the things I’m relatively fluent in, and what am I working on building fluency in these days? It’s good to celebrate how how far you’ve come, and it helps to be aware of what you want to learn so that you can deliberately learn. Hedgehog-me would probably have focused on programming, but fox-me has picked up lots of other interesting things, and I don’t mind the trade-offs. In my teens, I used to feel insecure about not being a Super Awesome Geek (e.g. Linux kernel hacker or Emacs core contributor), but actually, adding writing and drawing and tracking worked out really well, and the things I’m learning now will add even more to this life.

So I’m working on learning delegation, packaging, asking, connecting, animation, business… Lots of things to learn, and there’s even more beyond those topics. Can’t wait to see what it might be like with enough fluency in these topics to see how things fit together and to just do things. =)

2014-02-08 What could that fluency look like

2014-02-08 What could that fluency look like

What are you building fluency in?

More tips for self-directed learning: deliberate practice

Learning on your own can be really hard. Once you get past the basics, there aren’t that many books or courses about what you’re interested in. It makes sense. It takes effort to make a book or course, and authors and teachers tend to prefer larger markets. As you gain experience, you need more specialized knowledge, and it can be hard to find existing packaged information or people who can give you good feedback. People around you might not know what you’re talking about, and you might not be able to find mentors in the same city. Even figuring out what you want to learn and in what order can be challenging, especially if you’re learning about the intersections of topics instead of just one topic. Here are some tips I’ve picked up for learning on your own:

Look for inspiration. Find people who are doing what you want to be doing. Ask yourself: What do you like about their work? What do they do differently? How can you learn from them? They might never write a book or teach a course–they might not even recognize that what they do is worth teaching others–but you can still learn from their example. You can learn by watching them, and you can even reach out and talk to them.

Review your work. Try to find examples where you’ve already done what you want to do, even if it was by accident. Ask yourself: What did you do well? What did you like about it? What was different? What can you improve on next time? Look for ways to deliberately practise the skills you want to develop.

Make your own maps. If you’re learning about something that doesn’t have a clear outline or curriculum, it’s easy to feel scattered and discouraged. Make your own map. List your questions, and keep track of your progress as you answer them. Figure out what the next steps are. You might be able to ask mentors to help you make a better map. Mentors can tell you if there are easier ways to learn something, or if there are related topics that you would find useful. Make your own curriculum so that you don’t feel lost.

2014-02-02 Learning on your own

2014-02-02 Learning on your own

If you’re learning about things on your own, you’ll probably need to come up with your own ways to practise what you’re learning so that it becomes part of the way you work. Instead of being intimidated by the size of what you want to learn, break it down into smaller skills that you can practise. Look for ways that you or other people have done it well, and plan your own exercises so that you can learn how to do well consistently. Deliberate practice is the key towards building confidence and skill. Think about how you can practise that skill in a way that gives you quick feedback on whether you’re doing it right or wrong. You might be able to check your work on your own, or this might be something a coach or mentor can help you with. Keep track of how you do on these exercises – it’s great to feel your progress.

If you’re having a hard time with the exercise you’ve come up with, break it down into smaller pieces and try working more slowly. Improve your accuracy and consistency before you improve your speed. If you find the exercise too easy, take the next step. Think about the results you’re getting and adjust the way you practice. Good luck!

2014-02-04 How to create your own exercises for deliberate practice during self-directed learning

2014-02-04 How to create your own exercises for deliberate practice during self-directed learning

Learning from people

If I want to learn about more than I can explore in my own life, I’ll need to learn from other people. The easiest way to learn is from people who are already teaching: books, courses, and so on. Although I could probably spend my entire life doing so, it might be interesting to go beyond what I can learn from books and classes. That’s because books and classes have to be written for a certain kind of audience, and learning is further restricted by the time it takes to create these resources and the kind of people who can do so.

I can learn from coaches and mentors as well. Coaches may have explicitly thought about what they want to teach and how they want to teach it, but they customize the approaches and tips for each person (at least good ones do). Mentors might not have thought about the topics as much, so if I want to make the most of mentorship, I should get better at asking questions as well.

An interesting challenge is to learn from people who might not step forward as coaches or mentors. Some people have thought a lot about what they do as they improve it, but they might not have realized that other people would find that useful, or they might not have gotten around to sharing. Finding them is probably the key challenge; once we make the connection, we can have a geek-to-geek conversation. Other people do good stuff without having thought about how they do it – unconscious competence. In addition to the challenge of finding them, there’s also the challenge of articulating how and why they do things, maybe through interviews and observation.

2014-01-24 A path toward learning from people

2014-01-24 A path toward learning from people

I’m pretty decent at learning from books. I’m working on getting better at tracking how I came across a book so that I can thank people, and so that I can see the book in the context of the great conversation. I’m also working on translating ideas into actions and experiments. Books are familiar and well-understood.

2014-01-27 How can I improve my book-reading workflow

2014-01-27 How can I improve my book-reading workflow

Coaching, on the other hand… I could probably make better use of coaching, if I find good matches. Essentially, I’d be investing in faster insights and more effective learning. Could be worthwhile. What would make me say, “Yes, that was totally worth it. I grew in ways I couldn’t have done alone. Let’s continue.”? Path-finding, I think – a quick way to sort through decades of experience and all these resources.

2014-01-28 Understanding coaching in my life

2014-01-28 Understanding coaching in my life

What am I generally curious about? Systems, paths, estimates of effort and reward, other people to learn from, blind spots…

2014-01-15 General questions for coaches, role models, and mentors

2014-01-15 General questions for coaches, role models, and mentors

So that’s for formal coaching relationships. For informal learning, like the conversations we have over years of blog posts and the serendipitous connections we make on Twitter, I’m curious about getting stuff out of people’s heads and helping them share that with other people. People are learning all sorts of cool stuff, but (a) few people slow down and write about them, and (b) sometimes you really do need someone else to ask questions, so if I share what I’m curious about, maybe I can connect with people who have spent some time thinking about these things too.

Mel Chua and I were talking about interview techniques, and she mentioned how instant replays are great for helping people break things down. You watch people do something, you do an instant replay as you try to explain what they’re doing, they say “No, no, no, I did it because ____”, and you iterate until both of you have a clearer understanding. Sounds interesting. I wonder how we can do that online… Timothy Kenny‘s approach is like that too, except not in real-time. He analyzes the behaviour, and then discusses the model with people to see if it can be corrected or clarified.

Anyway, that’s my plan for getting better at learning from people – more conversations, and then eventually regular conversations. I think that will help me get to a more awesome place than I can on my own. =)

2014-01-15 Where I am and where I want to be

2014-01-15 Where I am and where I want to be

Have you deliberately worked on learning from people?

Getting better at learning on my own

I’m starting to get the hang of this, I think. I had been feeling a little… lost? inarticulate? trying to figure out how I learn how to learn on my own. Of course I had been learning on my own since forever, teaching myself programming out of books and through trial-and-error, learning writing outside the classroom, picking up drawing and sketchnoting by following my curiosity. But I hadn’t thought about it much until maybe 2013. I’m better at describing what I do and what I’m trying to figure out. I feel like I’ve learned a lot, but I’m learning even more now, so I’m still in the process of making sense of it all. =)

Sometimes it is easy to start with the challenges. I listened to those small, doubtful voices in my head, those knee-jerk reactions, and I wrote down the excuses they offered. They were surprisingly easy to prioritize for me. I simply asked myself which excuse made the least sense, dealt with it, and then moved up from there. Here is the list in order of importance, with the bigger challenges first.

  1. Action-focused learning takes time and reflection. No getting around this one! I just have to try things out. Life is short, and paying attention will help me make the most of it.
  2. No discussion / feedback. Not that teachers actually correct homework any more, although I suppose it would have been nice to be able to compare my answers with those in the back of the textbook. Anyway, I do get feedback from people and from results. I just don’t get authoritative feedback. That’s okay.
  3. Implicit / tacit knowledge. I have to pull insights out of other people’s heads / lives / Emacs configurations.  At least I can leave things a little better documented.
  4. No curriculum / sequence / mental structure. This means I could waste time and effort learning stuff the hard way instead of in a logical sequence. Oh well, still better than not learning at all. Talking to people should help with this.
  5. Driven by curiosity – can have gaps. I could miss something important! But then it might not be important after all if it’s so easily missed, yes? Besides, other people are learning other things, so we should get decent coverage.
  6. No textbook – many non-academic sources. C’est la vie. In fact, most of the interesting things I want to learn will probably never have a textbook, since textbooks require a certain audience size and class structure. I can learn how to learn from other people’s experiences, and how to think critically.
  7. Have to define your own assessment. Projects and experiments can help with this. It’s good to have clear goals that I can check off.
  8. Dispersed – time, focus. So what if I learn in a spiral or random-walk spread over time? If I take good notes, I don’t have to lose so much to forgetting. Maybe I can experiment with sprints, too.
  9. Prioritization. In a class, someone else says what’s important to learn or not. On my own, I might estimate value incorrectly, but that’s okay; I can check with other people, and I can listen to why I’m motivated about something.
  10. No clear sense of progress. How do you know how fast you’re going or how close you are? Does that matter? Perhaps I can check my progress by defining my own metrics.
  11. No cohort. Taking a class means having classmates – people you can talk to, people who are roughly at the same stage and with the same interests. I don’t have a clear cohort, but I do bump into people with similar interests over time.
  12. Self-paced learning can be slow because I’m doing it at my own pace. But life is short, and keeping that in mind can give me that sense of urgency.
2014-01-23 What's challenging or different about self-directed learning

2014-01-23 What’s challenging or different about self-directed learning

Looking at the gaps helped me see the ways I worked around them. Here’s what that process looks like. I start with a general question, and then I read or talk to people in order to get a sense of what’s out there. That gives me the vocabulary and the concepts I need to ask a better question, a more specific one. With that question in mind, I can then try things out in real life (everything has to come down to a change, after all). When I do this right, there’s also reflecting and following up. There are challenges for each step, but fortunately, there are also ways I can get better at each of them.

2014-01-27 Self-directed learning flow

2014-01-27 Self-directed learning flow

Fortunately, a conversation about English skills and delegation serendiptously led to a side-conversation about educational theory around reflective learning and experiential learning, which gave me even more ways to think about and understand my process. (See! The lens of literature is great for naming and finding the general elements in things that look idiosyncratic!) I have even more learning about learning ahead of me. In particular, I wonder if structured debriefing can make my reviews/reflections even better…

2014-01-28 Reflective learning

2014-01-28 Reflective learning

It seems all very circular, this learning about learning. Abstract. Ivory-towerish. I think it’s a phase, like the way I probably had to think about typing when I was learning to type, and now I just type. I’ll probably want to keep learning about learning, of course, and I can probably keep learning about learning forever, but I’ll also learn a lot by applying it to something outside itself. I can practise by learning about something that isn’t learning. Delegation, perhaps. Maybe Emacs, too. =)

2014-01-28 Moving past learning

2014-01-28 Moving past learning

In particular, identifying specific experiments or actions to take for the different areas I’m curious about will make it easier to actually do them, instead of just spending time planning. =) If I’m curious about whether strength and flexibility exercises can be an enjoyable part of my routine, I can borrow a yoga DVD and do a half an hour every other day for a month, and I can also try signing up for a class series. (I’ve already requested the DVD from the library.) If I want to learn from people, I can start by identifying the key topics and questions I’m curious about, sharing them, and connecting with people. If I’m curious about cooking with spices, I can choose two spice combinations and try them out.

2014-01-28 Translating my curiosity into actions and experiments TODO

2014-01-28 Translating my curiosity into actions and experiments TODO

Once I have a general curiosity about something, it’s easy to do a survey. Once I do a survey, it’s usually easy to pick a specific question and an experiment to try - if I slow down and make myself do so. Otherwise it’s tempting to just skim through the books and feel like I know something, without actually having a proper opinion on it and without letting it influence my life. If an idea isn’t going to change my life (at least in some way), it’s still marginally useful as something to pass on to other people in case it could change their lives, but it’s still a little bit of a waste. So: more experiments, especially for ideas that I think are valuable.

2014-01-05 How can I keep better track of experiments to try

2014-01-05 How can I keep better track of experiments to try

And really, they can be tiny experiments – let’s try this for one day, or let’s try this three times. I just have to make sure I’m conscious of them. I might as well always have something on the go. I probably always have something on the go, actually. In that case, I might as well take credit for them, and properly reflect on what I’m learning.

So this is where I am now. More experiments, more notes, more tracking, more development of ideas over time… Looking forward to sharing those notes with you.

How do you make sure you translate ideas into action? How do you keep track of the little changes you make?