Balancing Study and Application

I enjoy reading, observing, and researching. Whenever I need to learn something, those are the activities I choose.

Hands-on practice has always ended up as a secondary priority. I understand the importance of learning through doing, but for whatever reason I’ve given it less emphasis than I should.

This shortcoming is especially painful when I’m developing skills such as programming. I can’t learn to code just from reading a book or watching a video. In fact, I wonder if I’m better off taking a reversed approach by focusing on exercises and projects, and turning to research only when I’m stuck (update: the top-down philosophy has similarities to what I’m describing).

I’m still learning how to learn.

Staying Cool Under Fire

To feel is to be human, but at higher intensities emotions are disruptive to sound decision-making.

Anger and fear are particularly crippling. I cannot think clearly while overwhelmed or paralyzed. If I can remain calm in the middle of a disaster, at least I have a fighting chance.

Like most people, I face multiple crises every day. Perfect solutions are an unrealistic standard. My priorities are simple: avoid despair and focus on what matters. If I can manage that, I’m sure things will work out more times than not.

“I Have To”

Is that ever true?

When someone says “I have to punish you,” or “I have to do my homework,” is that literally the case?

What the phrase seems to mean: “The consequences of other alternatives are worse, so don’t blame me for choosing this option.”

We are accountable for our decisions. No one really believes us when we pretend we aren’t.

What Does It Take to Learn?

To me, it’s about having two things: curiosity and humility.

When you are driven to answer the questions you have, you will figure stuff out. Maybe not right away, but eventually.

And when you’re open to improving yourself through study and practice, then you’re more likely to do so.

Any student without curiosity and humility is only a student in name, only.

When No One Else Knows

This is one of my favorite litmus tests to reveal internal motivations.

Am I willing to donate to a cause if it happens anonymously or do I need to be acknowledged publicly?

Do I contribute ideas to a project if I know someone else will get the accolades?

Can I pick up and throw away someone else’s trash if no one sees me do it?

There’s nothing wrong with receiving credit, of course. But when public recognition is the deciding factor for performing a good deed, then I have to wonder whether ego is holding me back.

Because even if no one knows I made something better, I know.

Sustainable Success

Achieving something now at the cost of future happiness is a dangerous choice. Not because of the consequences of doing it once, but because of the temptation to repeat it again and again, until the cycle breaks you.

The classic example: forgoing sleep to work a few more hours each night. You make a few more deadlines by sacrificing your health.

These days, I prefer to view success as something that I can maintain over time, not a singular accomplishment that extracts a toll down the line. After all, my ability to enjoy tomorrow is impacted by what I do today.

Related: Getting a big lead helps avoid costly short-run decisions.

The Danger of Formalized Learning

Why are classes and books such popular educational tools?

Because a well-organized curriculum delivered by an expert is a great way to learn. Students can focus on understanding what’s in front of them, and not worry about anything else.

The problem? Classes and books tends to deliver the same experience to learners, but not all learners are the same. Everyone has different knowledge gaps and preferences for how to close them.

Which means: it’s up to each student to supplement what’s being taught with the resources needed for her situation.

These days, I’m learning Python primarily through an online class. When I get stuck, I just don’t rely on the class content to get going again. I check out YouTube, or deep dive into books from the library. I ask my coder friends questions. Because I have a special interest in data analysis and visualization, I focus on how Python helps me in that area.

I’m old enough to remember the days when the best way to learn meant seeking and committing to a single formalized curriculum. Now, with the number of educational resources within reach for any given subject, you don’t have to choose just one. And you probably shouldn’t.

Finishing and Improving

They’re useful abilities on their own, but work even better when paired together.

You can more easily finish as you improve. As your skills level up, your confidence does too.

And you can more easily see needed improvements when you finish. Because once the project or task has shipped, you’re in a position to understand which variables made the biggest difference.

It’s a virtuous cycle of bravery, humility, and growth.

Why I share my perspective online

The internet never forgets, so I’m aware of the downside. Something I said years ago could be yanked to the present and used against me. That has always been one of my fears for using social media.

So why do I regularly publish my thoughts on this blog?

A couple of reasons. First, I value the ability to communicate well, so I like having a practice that helps me do that. Second, taking a public stance requires pushing through the fear of being judged, which exercises courage.

I blog in the spirit of growth, which means refraining from personal attacks and staying as positive as I can. Given that approach, I feel comfortable with the possible consequences.

The Magic of One-On-One Learning

During the process of learning, there are always questions — concepts you don’t understand and curiosities you want satisfied.

There’s no better opportunity to have those questions answered when it’s just you and the teacher. There’s no other students to appease, and the entire learning experience can be geared towards your needs. Many times, this benefit of customization can outweigh the greater expertise or curriculum of other educational deliverables for wider audiences (i.e. class, book, lecture).

The next time you have a tutor, mentor, or anyone willing to teach you something, I would recommend:

  1. Ask all the questions you have.
  2. Be grateful for the chance to learn one-on-one.