What’s the most effective way to learn a new skill?
For the last three years it has been my sole focus (my passion and purpose, if you will) to answer this question. I’ve noticed that regardless of what learning resources are used, there are three strategies that set the most successful students apart from all the rest:
- Focus on habits, not goals
- Learning can’t happen in a vacuum
- To learn, you must do
1. Focus on habits, not goals
Let’s focus on the goal of learning programming for the moment, since that’s what I’ve spent the last three years doing at Bloc.
It seems counterintuitive to tell people NOT to focus on their goals, but hear me out — it’s all about leverage. As anyone who works with me will tell you, I dweebishly reference the R’as Al Ghul scene in Batman Begins pretty much 3-4 times a day, but here it’s especially relevant. In the movie, R’as gives Bruce one simple piece of advice: “Rub your chest, your arms will take care of themselves.”
So, what does that mean?
If you focus on building the habit of programming for 20-30 hours a week, you will reach your goal of being a web developer. If you focus on the goal of being a web developer in X months, you get nothing from that but stress and insecurity about how far along you are. Focus on the habit, not the goal. Rub your chest, your arms will take care of themselves.
So here’s what you should do right now: put 15 minutes a day on your calendar to spend time learning a new skill. Don’t do more than 15, just focus on doing 15 minutes a day. If you can do it successfully with no excuses for a week, try bumping it up to 20 minutes a day. Don’t try to overextend yourself by doing an hour a day right off the bat, this is going to be a 10,000 hour marathon so we’re focusing on developing the habit right now. The number of minutes you put in isn’t as important as you showing up each day.
2. Learning can’t happen in a vacuum
When I was learning web development, the two biggest components to my learning were having a mentor and belonging to a community.
Find a mentor
I worked at a small startup called merge.fm while in college. I learned more in the summer I spent working with one of their cofounders than I did in the entire previous year of coursework alone. There’s just something about working alongside an expert that really accelerates your learning. You’re able to pick up on how they think and discover things you never knew you didn’t know. There’s a reason why mentorship used to be the de facto standard of learning a new trade; it’s very effective.
Find a community
For me, the two communities I belonged to were the Illini Entrepreneurship Network (a student organization at my university) and HackerNews (a tech oriented online community).
I didn’t learn programming concepts from HackerNews, but I learned a different category of things. I learned about a subculture of people – I learned that Rubyists are the hipsters of programming. I learned that Bret Taylor, Rich Hickey, and John Carmack are programming gods, and that software companies that are truly serious about coffee have kitchens that look like meth labs. In short, I learned how to talk shop.
It turns out that the trends, gossip, mythology, and community are essential to learning any new skill. They can be shortcuts to knowledge, they become important when you’re working with others, and, most importantly, they are the things that make you feel like you belong.
3. To learn, you must do
In the first year of learning web development, I decided to replicate popular websites like Digg and Amazon – just to see if I could. I then tried tackling a few personal projects like a GeekSquad-esque app, and even used a class project for school as a way to further sharpen my skills.
I think building real projects is important for many reasons, but the most important one to me is because it’s fun. That’s something that is tragically lost in classical education, but I think it’s important enough to be on this list. Science has even proven that most students learn more, and quicker, when they’re having fun! Look for resources that show you how to build things, and look for opportunities in your day-to-day life to practice your new skill.
4. Be a cockroach
I secretly added a 4th item for those of you who’ve stuck around to read this far down the page.
Paul Graham once told the founders of Airbnb: ”You guys won’t die, you’re like cockroaches.”
When learning anything new, you’ll probably want to quit at some point. Like anything worthwhile, it’s difficult and will make you feel stupid at times. This is why #1 on this list is so important — stop worrying so much about whether you’re making progress or how much longer it’ll be until you feel like you’ve “made it.” All you have to do is focus on showing up, for however many hours you’ve decided to dedicate to learning your new skill each week. Be as mindless as a cockroach about everything else in the process (like the steps beyond what you’re on right now, and your overall goals), and don’t “die.”
“I made the statement years ago which is often quoted that 80 percent of life is showing up. People used to always say to me that they wanted to write a play, they wanted to write a movie, they wanted to write a novel, and the couple of people that did it were 80 percent of the way to having something happen. All the other people struck out without ever getting that pack. They couldn’t do it, that’s why they don’t accomplish a thing, they don’t do the thing, so once you do it, if you actually write your film script, or write your novel, you are more than half way towards something good happening. So that I was say my biggest life lesson that has worked. All others have failed me.”
To see this article as it appears on the Delivering Happiness website, please click here.