Category Archives: learning

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Thinking about how to get better at asking questions

I tend to learn most things by trying them out or by reading. That’s because I speed-read like nobody’s business, having taught myself the technique as a way of getting out of grade-school reading periods and into the computer lab. =) The downside of being really fast at reading is that I tend to neglect other ways to learn, so I made this sketch to remind me that there are other ways to learn things.

Different methods for (assisted) learning

I’m getting better at listening to podcasts and watching videos, although I still listen to them at 2x speed whenever I can change that setting. Before I can make better use of classes or coaches, though, I probably need to work on asking questions.

Come to think of it, I didn’t ask a lot of questions when I was in school. I usually raised my hand to answer questions, but I rarely took advantage of teachers’ office hours. I read, I wrote programs, I struggled with tests, but I didn’t ask. Even now, when I’m debugging problems or figuring stuff out, I tend to push through on my own instead of asking.

I should learn how to ask better. It’s useful. It can save me time, and it can encourage other people to share what they know. I wonder what’s keeping me from asking, and how I can work around it.

Thinking About Getting Better at Asking Questions

Part of the reason why I seldom ask questions, I guess, is that I tend to follow Eric S. Raymond’s advice on How to Ask Questions the Smart Way. I don’t want to waste people’s time by asking questions that have been asked before or that can be answered with a little digging, so I investigate things first. It might take me a few hours or even a couple of days, but I can often solve things on my own. Then I blog about it so that the answer becomes a little more searchable for other people.

How to Ask Questions the Right Way (Eric S. Raymond)

Maybe I should adopt a rule like this one from Akamai: You Must Try, and Then You Must Ask. When you’re about to give up, push on for fifteen minutes. Document your work so far. Take notes. Then you must ask. Call for help. Share your notes. You can keep digging afterwards, but you should ask, because otherwise you’re wasting time.

I feel self-conscious about asking, but I should work around that because asking people for help builds relationships and encourages them to share what they know. So I’m going to practise asking: first on Twitter because it’s quick and optional and in the stream, then maybe on Quora or Stack Overflow or Facebook, and then more thoughts and questions on my blog.

Good question-asking is probably the ability to concisely express a question that invites people to answer it. When I get the hang of asking, then I can make better use of other ways to learn. Interviews, webinars, courses and coaching are more effective for people who ask good questions.

If I spend a lot of time crafting questions, that makes it difficult to go to a presentation or a webinar and come up with new questions on the fly. Clearly, I should be coming to those with prepared questions that I can tweak based on the presentation contents. If I can keep a list or map of the questions I’m exploring, then I can pull out the ones that are related to a topic and ask them if the speaker covers material that’s related or tangential to my questions. Hmm…

What about teaching people how to ask me better questions? One of the nifty things that I’m learning from doing all these Google Helpouts sessions is that there’s a world of difference between vague questions and focused, prepared questions. When people ask me good questions, we’re off and running, and we pack so many things into a 15-minute conversation. When people ask me vague questions, I have to work a little bit harder to dig up something good.

Teaching people with vague questions_thumb

I don’t want to just focus on people who already know how to ask good questions. It’s good to help people learn how to ask better questions, and I’ll learn a lot about asking better questions myself.

2013-11-10 How can people ask me good questions_thumb

When people can identify their goals and share their experiences with things that have or haven’t worked for them, that makes it so much easier to help – especially if they also identify something they want to learn from me. This speeds up the conversation tremendously, because we can jump right into the middle. Even starting with expectations and differences can help. I’m getting better at guiding people through vague questions, but it’s a real joy to help people with great questions.

Have you worked on asking better questions? What did you learn? Are there great resources I should check out?

Mapping what I’m learning

I want to learn about more than I can fit into my working memory, so I need to take notes and I need to relate those notes to each other. My sketches, blog posts, and Evernote entries are great for remembering things, but I also want to see overviews so that I don’t miss the forest for the trees. This is where mapping comes in. Mapping is about organizing topics so that I can see the relationships, find the gaps, and keep moving forward.

Mapping what you know

For example, I mapped out what I wanted to learn about learning, and I frequently refer to it while planning my next steps. 2013_10_09_17_05_50_005

I also have a few other maps at lower levels of detail. For example, this is a rough map of topics related to taking notes:

Note-taking techniques

Mapping helps me look ahead, and it also gives me a framework for connecting what I learn to what I’ve learned before.

One way to practise mapping is by mapping what you know. This helps you review your notes, identify any gaps, see how far you’ve come, and connect ideas (and discover interesting relationships you might not have come across before). Your maps can also help other people learn.

To map what you know, you can start from the bottom level (detailed notes answering specific questions) and work your way up to overviews. Alternatively, you can start from the top (an outline) and then work your way down to the specifics. Combining these strategies can help you get around mental blocks.2013_10_14_23_12_00_003

I’ve been working on mapping what I know. I’m still trying to find a good set of tools to help me do this. Instead of getting intimidated by the task, I’ve decided I’m going to start in the middle, mapping out things I recently learned and things that I’m learning next. Once I get the hang of doing that, I can start adding older entries like my blog posts.

I haven’t quite found the perfect tool yet. Evernote is great for personal notes, but even though it has public notebooks (see my sketchbook and my sketchnotes), people aren’t used to following or discussing new notes there. Flickr is good for exposure and a little discussion, but it’s not as easy to search or back up. Neither tool is good for overall non-linear organization.2013_10_15_21_39_36_004

Most note-taking systems focus on indexes for paper notes, either with straightforward tables of contents or mindmaps that refer to pages by IDs. Evernote and OneNote have been around for a long time, so I’ll probably be able to find people who have thought about how to organize lots of information using those systems. In the meantime, I’ve been experimenting with using mindmaps to organize hyperlinks and next actions. I’m testing Mindjet MindManager, Xmind, and Freeplane. So far, I like Freeplane the most because:

  • the GTD add-in lets me quickly get a list of next actions
  • customizable keyboard shortcuts let me tweak the interface
  • filtering lets me focus on a selected branch
  • and hey, it’s free and open source


To make this, I added each item in my current public and private sketchbooks to my map, creating nodes when necessary. I don’t have a lot of topics in my sketchbook yet, but if I find myself with more than twenty or so items in a single category, it’s probably time to split that. I’ve split the categories in my blog index a few times, and I’m long overdue for splitting some of the others. It’s much easier to reorganize things in a map instead of editing each item, although I should come up with some kind of bulk interface so that I can update the categorizations.

The arrows are hyperlinks to either my blog posts or my Evernote entries (using evernote:// URLs from Copy Note Shortcut). I included private notes as well, so the map works only for me. Sorry! In the future, I’d love to make a version of this that omits private URLs and information. Freeplane supports lots of export formats, so maybe I’ll be able to process XML or HTML and make something that’ll help people browse too.

I’d like to get to the point of having a smooth workflow for drawing, scanning, publishing, organizing, browsing through, and following up on these thoughts. Do you know of anyone who’s doing something similar to this? This kind of visual thinking isn’t quite like the visual recording that most sketchnoters do. There are plenty of mindmaps at Biggerplate, but they look more like templates rather than thoughts-in-progress.

Reaching further back, parts of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks are online, and Prof. Carlo Pedretti’s introduction to the Codex Arundel has some notes on the structure: unnumbered loose sheets, usually one page per thought. That’s encouraging, although it doesn’t tell me much about overall structure. Part of Galileo Galilei’s notebooks are online, too. He numbered his pages and usually left plenty of whitespace. There are plenty of examples of note-takers throughout history, but it’s hard to find ones explicitly talking about how they map the connections between ideas. How to Read a Book briefly mentions building a syntopicon, so I checked out the resulting volume (A Syntopicon: An Index to The Great Ideas). It’s a huge project, but it didn’t give me a lot of clues about the process of building such a thing. More recently, there’s How to Make a Complete Map of Every Thought You Think, which described the process of making and updating a global subject map of contents. Books on study skills also talk about how to condense a lesson into successively smaller cheat sheets until you can fit everything onto one page (or an index card, or whatever the teacher permits), and that’s somewhat related to the kind of summarization and overview I want to do.

On the non-graphical front, I’ve also had fun making a huge outline of blog posts I want to write (and therefore things I want to learn about). Org Mode outlines work better than Freeplane maps for large amounts of text or fine-grained detail, so I’ll probably switch over to outlines when I’m drafting the post and then update the map with the hyperlink to the post when I’m done. It’s all tied together.

Anyway, here we are. I think the sketches and maps I’m making are promising, and I’m looking forward to digging deeper. If you happen to have put a lot of thought into a similar system, I’d love to hear from you!

Mindmapping chat with Billy Waters (@vitaminsludge)

I’ve been curious about how people manage hundreds of maps. Billy Waters reached out to me over Twitter, gave me plenty of tips, and shared his Dropbox folder with hundreds of maps with me. (Neat!) Instead of pinging him constantly with lots of questions, I asked him if I could set up a Google Hangout so that I could pick his brain. He agreed, and he was okay with sharing it too. Here’s the recording!

Time Note
1:02 Started in 1990
1:14 Other tools
2:01 Mindjet
2:53 Building an archive of book notes
3:42 Mind-maps and to-do lists
4:02 todo.txt
5:09 Taking notes
5:23 Organization vs brainstorming
5:40 How to process a book
6:23 Don’t like linking maps
6:59 Mindmaps not a solution for everything
9:11 Keeping maps when you move computers
11:09 Forgetting what you have
12:21 I don’t really search them
13:26 Mapping for others
14:48 ~12 hours to process a book
15:18 Highlighting on a Kindle
17:00 Learning about mindmapping
17:52 Other techniques: Major system, spaced repetition
18:33 Learning Chinese
20:43 Unwieldy maps
21:54 Favorite map
22:34 Printing and laminating maps
25:11 iPad and iThoughts for mindmapping on the go
26:34 Ikea
28:51 Mindjet vs Freeplane
32:20 Learning from other people’s diagrams
38:21 Copyright and book summaries
42:03 Paper, digital; ScanSnap
43:58 Dropbox
45:09 Backups
46:19 Teaching English in China for three years; visual thinking
48:04 More creative mindmaps
50:52 Biggerplate and sharing mindmaps
52:22 Two people: Jamie Nast, Michael Deutch
53:25 Use Your Head (Tony Buzan)
54:05 Unwieldy map, unwieldy thoughts
54:32 Floating nodes

The main things I picked up were:

  • Don’t worry about all those fancy features or about losing track of what you have. It’ll work out.
  • Check Biggerplate and other mindmap collections for inspiration.
  • Check out these other role models and books.
  • Structure + detail

Power user of mindmaps? I’d love to hear your tips too!

You can download the MP3 from

Visual book review: How to make a complete map of every thought you think (Lion Kimbro)

I’m curious about how to take more effective notes, so I’ve been researching different systems. I came across Lion Kimbro’s experiment with mapping out his thoughts years ago. I finally sat down and condensed the free 131-page e-book on How to Make a Complete map of Every Thought You Think (2003) into this one-page summary. You can click on it for a larger version and print it out if you want.

How to Make a Complete Map of Every Thought You Think

Feel free to print, share, or modify this image! (Creative Commons Attribution License)

The book describes a system for taking quick notes and integrating them into subject-based sections in a larger binder, with some notes on managing your archive. It also gives tips on splitting large subjects and mapping out the connections between topics.

I’ve been using some of the book’s ideas on colour and icons, indicating TODOs with green boxes and structure with blue ink. Maps are handy too, although I tend to use computers so that I can link and rearrange easily. Both visual thinking and technology have come a long way since 2003, when Lion Kimbro wrote this book. With Evernote and the Fujitsu ScanSnap, I can scan my sketches and file them along with my blog posts and other notes. I back up my data so that I’m less worried about losing my archive, and I also keep my paper notes by date. I’ve started using Freeplane to build my global subject map, which I’ll cover in a future blog post. There are still some tech gaps, but things are pretty cool.

Want to learn more? See my sketches about learning or note-taking, or my blog posts about learning. Tell me what you think or what you’re curious about!

What do I want to learn about learning?

Although the project of writing a topic-focused blog/book is temporarily on the back burner, I’ve been thinking about what I want to learn about learning so that I can squeeze it into little bits of time here and there. This way, I can keep an eye out for learning opportunities, questions, and books that would be worth exploring.


Making a high-level map of what I want to learn helps me keep it in mind. A one-page visual summary like this catches my eye more than a simple text list or outline. There are twelve items here, so I might focus on one area per month. Let me think about what each area means and how I can learn it…

  1. Map a good path/course for learning (guide questions, sequence, …): It usually makes sense to learn things in a particular order. This is part of the value offered by teachers and coaches. A good curriculum organizes ideas so that they build on previous ones, and individualized learning plans can focus on the most useful things to learn first. Like the way a curriculum includes recommended reading, a good map also includes the resources that can help people learn the specific topics.
    • Success: I can organize learning maps for things I know (ex: how to learn Emacs or Org). I can plan learning maps for the things I want to learn, with feedback from more experienced people who can help me make sure the sequence makes sense and that I’m using the best resources.
    • How: I can learn this through practice, especially if I can compare the maps I make with other people’s versions. I can learn this through feedback from coaches.
    • Explore: What are some ways you can “tinker” with a new topic? How can you recognize when you’re trying to climb a cliff that’s too steep and find alternative routes, versus dealing with something that will yield to persistence?
  2. Find and use the appropriate resources: There are different kinds of resources, and resources can be of varying quality or appropriateness. Effectiveness is learner-dependent, too. For example, I do well with books, but I have a harder time with video or audio, and I have a lot to learn about working with people. Using the right resources can accelerate learning, while using poor resources can set me back.
    • Success: I can quickly identify key resources based on other people’s experiences and recommendations, adjusting the list depending on availability and my  preferences.
    • How: I can work on getting better at preliminary research. I can estimate how useful a resource will be and what I aim to get out of it, and then compare that with the results. I can work on getting more effective at learning through different channels through practising, reflecting, identifying weaknesses, and building on strengths.
    • Explore: How can I learn from a coach? How can I get better at learning from free courses? How can I make the most of what I can learn from books?
  3. Take more effective notes: Notes are a great way to condense and personalize knowledge as well as integrate what I’ve learned with other things I’ve learned before.
    • Success: I keep different levels of notes: details, summaries, and maps that integrate ideas with other topics. I can review my notes easily, refreshing my memory and following up on questions or ideas. I might not remember everything, but I can usually find things again, and I can see where the gaps are.
    • How: The Cornell method looks interesting, so I might try that for detailed notes. I also want to get better at organizing and reviewing my electronic notes, and at mapping the connections between ideas.
    • Explore: How can I manage different levels of notes well, so that I can dive deep or get the overview as needed?
  4. Integrate new knowledge with old: It’s one thing to learn, and it’s another thing to integrate what you learn into what you know so that you can see where the gaps, conflicts, or synchronicities are.
    • Success: I note follow-up questions and ideas after learning something. I fill those in with further study and cross-references. I have a syntopical index like the one mentioned in How to Read a Book.
    • How: Practice, practice, practice.
    • Explore: How can I map what I know and what I want to learn, and then connect that with the building blocks?
  5. Improve working memory and concentration: This is useful when learning complex topics like programming because I have to hold different chunks of information in my head. Also good for popping the stack in terms of tasks, conversations, and so forth.
    • Success: Dual n-back test performance? Less task-switching? Oh, finishing more stuff instead of getting distracted mid-way…
    • How: Practice, mnemonics.
    • Explore: How can I get better at remembering sequences and dealing with distractions?
  6. Improve long-term memory and retention: My associative memory is pretty good, so if I can remember a hook into something, I can usually get enough information to find it again. I’d like to get better at remember
    • Success: I’ve memorized key information such as phone numbers, basic recipes, and important skills.
    • How: Spaced repetition, mnemonics.
    • Explore: What’s important to store in my own memory? How can I get better at doing that?
  7. Recognize learning opportunities: Squeezing more learning out of every moment! Even in routines, there’s always room to learn more.
    • Success: I can recognize and take advantage of learning opportunities, getting over the barriers of boredom (for routine tasks) or emotion (for difficult moments).
    • How: Process improvement for routine tasks, reflection for difficult times
    • Explore: How can I improve my routines? What can I do to handle difficult times even better? Where do I run into diminishing returns or over-optimization, and where should I move on?
  8. Translate learning into changes: Book knowledge isn’t everything. I’ve got to do something with it too. That way, I don’t just take a book’s word for it. Instead, I can find out whether something really works for me, and I can annotate it with my experiences.
    • Success: I’ve slowed down my learning pace so that I test and integrate more of the knowledge that I pick up. I define clear objectives and commitments before learning something so that I know the time will be worth it.
    • How: Practice, reflection, scheduled decision/learning reviews.
    • Explore: What small actions can I take to integrate what I learn into how I live? How can I keep track of what I’m learning and what the results are?
  9. Observe and reflect: Life has a lot to teach me if I remember to look. Noticing what’s unusual–or what’s absent, which is harder–can lead to lots of learning.
    • Success: W- is a great role model: he’s more observant than I am, and he follows his curiosity in learning about lots and lots of things.
    • How: Practice and feedback. Spot-the-difference games in real life? Asking more questions, too. Coaching, perhaps?
    • Explore: How can I look at my life with an outsider’s eyes? How can I become more attentive and observant using visual thinking or other skills?
  10. Recognize and test assumptions, differences: When I make decisions or learn about things, it helps to see what I’m taking for granted.
    • Success: I can articulate my assumptions and devise simple tests. When learning something, I can use critical thinking to think about what assumptions are embedded in the learning and identify situations where the lesson may not be valid.
    • How: Practise by analyzing and testing my decisions, and then reviewing the results. Read critically.
    • Explore: Can I find or come up with a framework that will help me identify more of my assumptions? How can I do small tests?
  11. Adapt to changes: This is related to recognizing assumptions and differences. Real life can sometimes change too slowly for me to notice when my assumptions are no longer valid. Learning includes getting a sense for when things may have changed so much that I need to reconsider things.
    • Success: I have “tripwires” that trigger re-evaluation and additional learning. I periodically practise zero-based thinking.
    • How: Practice and reflection.
    • Explore: What scenarios should I watch out for, and what early warning signs can trigger re-evaluation? How do I make sure I don’t miss those signs?
  12. Share what I’m learning: I learn a lot in the process of sharing what I’m learning, and I can help other people learn as well.
    • Success: I have a smooth process for sharing what I’ve learned and what I’m learning. I incorporate people’s feedback and ideas into my learning process.
    • How: Blogging, drawing, putting together presentations, etc.
    • Explore: How can I make sharing more efficient or more effective?

This will be fun. If there’s anything you’d particularly like to learn more about, or if you can help me learn some of these things more effectively, please feel free to comment!

If you want to follow my journey so far, check out my learning-related notes on Flickr and on my blog. Enjoy!

Learning more about illustrating my blog posts

I’ve been adding little sketches to most of my blog posts partly for drawing practice and partly because it’s fun sprinkling images throughout my blog (and Windows Live Writer makes this so easy, too!). Here’s a sampler:


So that’s drawing thumbnails, which is nifty.

And then there’s drawing summaries, either before or after I write the post. For example, these talking points for my chat with Timothy Kenny:

One thing I haven’t really played around with much is using visuals to say things that I’m not saying in the text – to add a touch of humour or illustrate with everyday situations. For example, see this post by Mich W. on learning to write, and her Science x Comics series which turns interviews about research into something much easier to understand.

Here’s one of Mich’s drawings about writing:


(Check out for more!)


I want to learn the language of comics. To break it down further into something more manageable: I want to learn the art of the one-panel joke or observation. Dust off the Far Side, page through the editorial cartoons, browse through Cartoon Stock for inspiration. I love the everyday situations of Panda and Polar Bear. There are plenty of single-panel comics, like The Flying McCoys, Herman, Non Sequitur, Reality Check… And then of course, there’s learning by doing, as embarrassing as the beginnings will be. (Maybe a decade or two?)

W- and I pun and alliterate endlessly, so there must be something there. It’s a long-term thing, but I think it would be fun to learn visual humour. Goodness knows there’s enough material in life!