How should I learn something new?

Examining how we self-teach and ask others for help

Thank you to everyone who gave feedback on the new Gridology branding. Special shout out to my amazing fiancé, Casey, for helping me refine the entire brand. Also, don’t miss out on Gridology in your Instagram feed!

This newsletter also has a new home. Instead of remembering my clunky Substack URL, you can now type in gridology.co in your browser and start reading.

Now, today’s grid:


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Learning new things as an adult is challenging. It requires a high level of self-awareness. Once you’ve graduated school, the days of being told how and what to learn are behind you. If you want to learn a new skill, it’s on you to create the course structure. You are the teacher and the student.

Since I graduated, I’ve learned a few things on my own: how to code in three programming languages, how to improve my Excel and PowerPoint skills, how to be a better runner, how to be salesperson, how talent acquisition works at global companies, etc. I acquired these skills differently… tailoring my curriculum based on how I best learn.

On a professional level, learning is essential for career development. According to a 2016 Forbes article, training and development is one of the most coveted features in a job by Millennials:

Learning should be a lifelong endeavor, not something that stops at age 18 or age 22. People who continually upgrade their skills are not only better employees, but happier and more fulfilled people in general. A recent PWC survey found that the #1 benefit Millennials value most from an employer is Training and Development. And not coincidentally, good Training and Development is highly correlated with job satisfaction.

Outside of work, continuous learning is a fancy way of saying hobby development. As we all try to make good use of our free time, certain activities either require an increased or net-new time commitment. Have you been running for years, but finally want to run a marathon? Have you always wanted to write a screenplay or learn how to skateboard? As I wrote the other week, knowing where to focus your time outside of your day job requires a deep understanding of your interests and where you want to grow.

Today, I want to focus not on what we should learn, but how we do it. Science tells us there are four main types of learners: visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and writing/reading learners. Today’s grid keeps these learning types in mind while getting tactical on the approach.

On the x-axis, we have how much time is spent teaching yourself. As an adult, anything we want to learn must start by carving out the time to do so. Deliberate, quality time studying and practicing your new skills is what matters. How you do it is your choice.

On the y-axis, we have how much time is spent asking others for help. Sometimes, things we want to learn are so foreign to us that we need to ask for help. When you don’t have any idea of where to begin, there is no harm in seeking guidance. However, sometimes, we can use the idea that we need another persons’s guidance as a blocker to moving forward. In these cases, asking for help is just a way to procrastinate. Every time we are uncertain about the next best step, it shouldn’t require asking someone for help. Treat another person’s time as you would treat your own: valuably. The best way to be mindful of others’ time is to ask yourself the following question before reaching out for help: Is asking this person a question the only way I can unblock myself from moving forward?

Understanding the Grid

To properly use this grid, it requires self-honesty—learning something is a real time commitment. Is that something you’re prepared to do? Typically, I find the most successful learners land on the right half of the grid—meaning they carve out the time needed for independent learning. If you land on the left side, it’s because you’re either uncommitted to your goal or you’ve set your sights too high.

Active

You spend a lot of time learning by yourself, and you often reach out to others for help. When you’re operating in this quadrant, you should have already made significant progress towards your learning goal. Whatever new thing you’re trying to learn is a real priority in your professional or personal life. At this point, you’ve mastered the basics, so asking for help empowers you to move from intermediate to advanced skill level. With the guidance of experts, you can help refine your approach, learn about new points of view, and fill in difficult to identify blind spots. Personally, when I was improving my ability to write code in SQL, I spent most of my time in this quadrant. At first, when I was gaining competency, I was in the Independent quadrant. I spent lots of time taking online classes and Googling my way to mediocrity. However, once I understood the basics, I depended on the advice of others to help accelerate my growth. My manager at the time helped me refine my code and master challenging topics I couldn’t figure out myself.

Independent

You spend a lot of time learning by yourself, and you rarely reach out to others for help. When I start to learn something new, this is the quadrant where I like to spend my time. Being an independent learner means playing to your strengths. If you’re a reading/writing learner, perhaps it means diving into books or articles. If you’re an auditory learner, perhaps there are podcasts to leverage. The point here is two-fold:

  1. Create the space for learning.

  2. Guzzle information in the way you retain it best.

Doing both of these things will take you from 0 to 1 quickly. Soon you can pivot to the Active quadrant, where your requests of others will be more nuanced and thoughtful. In learning how to use Figma (a new graphic design and prototyping tool), I first went to the web and spent time reading much of the help documentation on the website. Given I’m at the beginning of my learning journey, there’s no reason for me to reach out to others help when there is so much terrific content available online for free. I’m confident in my ability to get started myself.

Lost or Lazy

You spend little time learning by yourself, and you often reach out to others for help. If you are operating in this quadrant, one of two things must be true:

  1. You are teaching yourself something far outside your comfort zone, and you don’t know where to even begin.

  2. You don’t believe in your ability to self-teach. Typically, this belief is due to lack of practice.

In scenario one, you’re lost. Sometimes, when you want to learn something new, you have no idea where to begin. For example, let’s say you want to learn how to play piano, but have never before played an instrument. In theory, you could start watching online tutorials, but the subject matter may still be over your head. Plus, watching online videos isn’t an effective learning mechanism for you. Perhaps you are a kinesthetic learner and taking lessons with an instructor is the best way for you to go from 0 to 1. In this case, reaching out for help is encouraged. Sometimes we all need a bit of guidance to ensure we’re started in the right direction.

In scenario two, you’re just lazy. If you spent a bit more time, you probably could Google your way out of being stuck. For example, if you wanted to learn more about American history, a quick Google search could set you on the right path. Reaching out to others for help is the equivalent of asking someone who’s closer to the kitchen to grab you a glass of water. You could have easily done it yourself but asking someone for help was just the easiest way forward. When you’re being a lazy learner, be careful. Always weigh the cost of asking simple questions versus the benefit of saving yourself an hour. Asking too many beginner questions can frustrate those who you are asking for help.

Uncommitted

You spend little time learning by yourself, and you rarely reach out to others for help. If you are operating in this quadrant, you probably haven’t convinced yourself that you want to learn whatever it is you say you want to learn. If you had done so, you’d have carved out the time to start learning by yourself. And, at the very least, you’d be lazy about learning and start asking others for help. If you find yourself stagnant, it’s time to reassess. Perhaps there’s something different to learn where you can make real progress. Or, perhaps, you started too big. For example, let’s say you wanted to learn how to speak in Japanese. With this goal now a focus, you spend the first two months always thinking about starting, but never actually progressing. To begin actually learning, you need to break down this goal into smaller components. A better first learning goal would have been to learn the Japanese alphabet. After that, you could learn the most common 200 words. Breaking learning goals into smaller modules is a great way to improve your self-teaching skills.

Grid Shortcomings

This grid assumes that the time spent learning is quality time. If you engage others and don’t really listen to the answers, then you will have a different experience with this grid. Learning on your own, in reality, isn’t too different from learning in the classroom. If you spend the entire time doodling in a notepad rather than paying attention, you are not going to see much growth.

With this new framework in mind, I hope you feel empowered to start learning something new today. With so much great content available online, there’s no reason why you can’t get started learning something new today. What are you waiting for?

Life’s only as confusing as you let it be,
Ross


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