Learning New Things : Learning Gets Easier

Learning new things is a skill. Like most skills, practise makes perfect. So the more you try to learn new things, the easier it gets to learn new things. 🙂

Associations (Mental Hooks)

When you start trying to get to grips with a new subject it can be really daunting. Regardless of how good you were at the last thing, you are back to the bottom of the pile again, a beginner, which can be really hard on the ego. Having said that, if you have been good at something else, you already have a bunch of mental hooks to hang things on!

Have you noticed how people often explain things by likening them to something else? For example, “The mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell!” Why do we do that? Because we are making mental associations. It’s easier to remember things that are similar to something we already know. When you know very little, you don’t have many mental hooks to hang things on. As you learn more, you have more mental hooks, so hanging new things gets easier.

As an example let’s think about learning a new programming language. If it is the first time you’ve learnt a new programming language all of the concepts are new, both the basic concepts of programming and the idiosyncrasies of the specific language. Fast forward to a point where you are pretty good at your first language and someone asks you to switch languages, what do you do? Start from scratch or translate? I’m guessing the latter. You understand how to do a specific task, say string handling, in one language, so you translate. You Google, “Javascript equivalent of strpos PHP”, and find out Javascript has “indexOf”. That was a lot easier for you than a total novice because you already have mental hooks.

Looking Below the Surface

Often the cockiest people are the ones that know the least. They literally “don’t know what they don’t know”. They are blissfully happy in this little world where they believe they have all the answers. I’m sure this is one of the reasons why young people become cocky douchebags in their teens and early tweeties. They think they know all the answers. As people progress, they start to understand the gaps in their knowledge, which is typically quite a humbling experience. Many “experts” don’t like the term “expert” because the more you know, the more you realise you don’t know. It’s a bitter pill to swallow.

If you’ve lived through this once, you are more likely to question things the next time, or at least appreciate there are probably hidden depths you are yet to encounter. That is positive if your desire is to keep progressing.

Understanding the Effort Required

We previously discussed time and repetition. The more you learn, the more you should appreciate the time and effort required to get good at something. That can be both good and bad.

If I thought it would take me 20+ years to get to where I am now, I don’t think I would ever have started. After 7 months I thought I had this Oracle thing cracked! 🙂 I am daunted by the thought of being bottom of the pile again, but at the same time I understand the effort involved in getting good at things, and I know I am mentally and emotionally capable of it. That is quite liberating. That alone gives you an advantage over a complete beginner!

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks!

It is true that as you grow older the makeup of your brain changes, which could make certain tasks harder, but you (hopefully) have more focus and maturity, which in many ways makes learning easier.

One of the biggest factors that happens with age is distraction. I speak to many people who say they would love to spend their evenings and weekends geeking out, but their wife/husband/kids would kill them etc. Learning to use your time efficiently and staying in the habit of learning is an important factor. Remember, it’s little and often!

Rather than sitting on the train staring into space this last weekend, I had my laptop open and I finished off one article and wrote 2 blog posts. That was lost time before I decided to make use of it! Don’t let yourself off the hook by saying you don’t have time. Find those little pieces of time you currently waste that could be reassigned to learning.

Check out the rest of this series here.