Last month I finished some client work that was excruciatingly painful. It was painful for a number of reasons, but mainly because I had no clue how to solve the problem when I started. The solution was to learn a new tool and become zero to hero (at least in the eyes of the client) in a matter of days. So I panicked and put my head down to study like a stressed out college student before finals...and I learned.
It's hard, painful, necessary, and when it's finally over, you feel like a better person. Kate Ray was right about learning in her TechCrunch piece, Don't Believe Anyone Who Tells You Learning to Code is Easy.
How the Learning Process Has Changed
Mortimer Adler, some smart guy who said some smart stuff, wrote a cutting-edge article for the Journal of Educational Sociology in the 1940s entitled: Invitation to the Pain of Learning that challenged the status quo of learning. In the journal his first sentence reads:
"One of the reasons why the education given by our schools is so frothy and vapid is that the American people generally – the parent even more than the teacher – wish childhood to be unspoiled by pain."
He's not wrong, but as a Millennial I find the "kids these days" attitude a bit cliche. However, the general point that we constantly try to avoid uncomfortable situations i.e. pain is more relevant today than ever. We're not all hedonists, but we live with so many daily distractions and conveniences that there's a 25% chance you took a break to read an article on buzzfeed.com today instead of doing something important. I'm not suggesting that unwinding for a few minutes before tackling a new task is a bad thing, but everything around us suggests that we welcome, if not prefer, distractions:
- Need to do some math? Paper and pen...nah, calculator.
- Need to get some groceries? Drive to the market and... nah, Google Express.
- Need to find out who the heck Mortimer Adler is? Walk down to the library and... nah, Google Search.
- Need to go somewhere? Get in my car and...nah, Google again (no really).
So even though the evidence against Google exacerbating this modern problem of lethargy, let us seek more criticism from my bro Adler:
"It must all be fun. It must all be entertaining. Adult learning must be made as effortless as possible – painless, devoid of oppressive burdens and of irksome tasks."
Remember when the only way to learn a new language was to read a travel dictionary or take a semester-long class in college? With the convenience of e-learning, demand for self-guided activity, and entitlement to free content, we've basically made it as easy as possible to learn something. But we don't.
I can literally download an app on my phone and find out how to order two beers at a bar in six languages in under an hour all while slicing watermelons across my touch screen. Why don't I do it? Because The Walking Dead is on. Shhhhhhh be quiet!
So when I wanted to learn something on my free time I should have logged into Lynda.com, or used another awesome LMS, or created a free account on the aforementioned software's website and dive into their FREE engaging, informative, interactive, incredible, training materials. However my first instinct was to ask someone else to do it.
Luckily when you're tasked with learning a new software to implement a client request, you're essentially in a 'sink or swim' situation. After some time I finished the project, learned a new skill, and am now writing a blog patting my own back like a true self-congratulatory awesome person would.
The big take away here is that learning, although potentially painful, is a growth process. It's important to not feel discouraged otherwise we could miss out on some golden opportunities to improve our skill sets and our perspectives. With the appropriate attitude and preparation, learning can also be a joyful experience.
Four Tips on How To Succeed in Learning/Skill Building
Here are some tips on how to prepare yourself when you're faced with a difficult task or acquiring a new skill:
Build Self Confidence
It gets thrown around a lot as some sort of bumper sticker advice, but self confidence is the foundation of your learning ability and future success. Individuals with negative attitudes rarely make friends or nail job interviews, so if you go into a learning situation with a fatalist attitude you're already sabotaging your learning experience.
Learning requires a little trial and error, so don't be so hard on yourself if you make mistakes. Another smart dude who claimed everything is relative also said:
"Anyone who has never made a mistake, has never tried anything new."
So take some risks and go into the learning situation with a positive "I'm going to do this no matter what" attitude instead of assuming it will end up like this:
When trying to achieve something, set milestones or tiny achievable victories along the way. We all wish we could be Keanu Reeves and plug our skulls into a computer and be able to say "I know kung fu" after a few seconds (well at least one of those things is wishful thinking), but some things can't be learned/accomplished in a day. The three things to remember when setting goals is to keep them realistic (something you could actually do), achievable (again, something you could actually do), and progressive (inching toward the thing you want to do). An example of goal setting can go something like this—and let's stick with kung fu as an example because...kung fu.
- Learn the basics of horse stance (flat posture, legs bent at 90 degrees, parallel with the floor).
- Practice horse stance in a mirror so you can critique yourself.
- Try to hold horse stance for 3 minutes.
- Rest your quads because their on fire now!
- Try holding a board across your legs to see if your balance is correct.
- Review horse stance before moving onto another form.
This is an example of setting your own pace to coincide with what you want to achieve. Learning martial arts requires strict attention to technique and you can't move onto windmill kicks until you practice the basics. If your goal setting were to look like this:
- Think about kung fu.
- Watch a kung fu movie.
- Try to copy what you saw in the movie.
- Think you're a master at kung fu.
So keep your goals realistic, achievable, and progressive. We could make goal setting a competition and call it R.A.P (realistic, achievable, progressive) battles but people would get confused.
Panic can be useful because it makes us treat situations seriously, but it can also have harmful effects on the body. In order to retain the skills and knowledge you gain while attempting somethign new, you have to stay relatively calm. A couple ways to do this are to exercise regularly, meditate, practice breathing techniques, and listening to calming music. The latter point is good if you're sitting at your desk and you have some headphones. Although if death metal is what calms you down please keep your headphone volume to a minimum or you might have the inverse effect on those surrounding you.
Self-discipline is hard, if it were easy everyone would be millionaires (I'm I don't know what that would do to inflation but "whatevs"). There are few tips you can apply to keep yourself more honest in your learning or skill-building paths.
Don't wait to "feel like it."
Having goals and schedules will help with this, but choosing to do, or don't do something purely based on whether or not it feels entertaining, pleasurable, or comfortable is very dangerous. If all of us only decided to do something when we "felt like it" then there would be a lot more pissed off people around. If you're having an off day fine, go ahead and take ten, but come right back and...
Finish what you start
When you finally decide to achieve something, make sure you really know what has to be done in order to get there. Otherwise you'll waste your time and not end up finishing. Try not to switch contexts too often and the task you were working on falls by the wayside. Start something and see it through. No one is proud of many half-finished accomplishments; and potential employers, significant others, buyers, and partners aren't impressed by them either.
Be accountable for yourself
If you need to learn something treat it with the same gravity as brushing your teeth. Even if you have to trick yourself into thinking that dedicating 30 minutes or an hour toward a new objective is more important than it really is, at least you'll have practiced building an accountability structure that others will notice and adopt as well.
Use the above tips to kickstart your learning and skill-building and don't be afraid of the hardships—it'll all work out in the end. In conclusion I'll let Mortimer finish this up with a mic-drop worthy quote:
"The purpose of learning is growth, and our minds, unlike our bodies, can continue growing as we continue to live."