JW’s Philosophy of Learning

Some people are constantly amazed at what I know about various subjects, especially technology and how various pieces of software work. I am going to let you in on a little secret: there is no secret to amassing this knowledge.

(With credit to Dorothea for the phrasing): The way to learn is to beat on things with rocks.

That’s it. Just keep trying until it does what you want it to do. When you get there (or even if you don’t), I guarantee you will have learned something.

OK, I can recognize that this is a statement of philosophy, but as an actual game plan, it may not be all that helpful. So here are five tips on how to be a more effective rock-beater:

  1. Define the problem well
  2. RTFM
  3. Change one thing at a time
  4. Someone else already knows
  5. Don’t believe it until you see it

Define the problem well. This may seem like a no-brainer, but if you don’t know what it is you’re trying to do, it’s hard to come up with something effective to do about it. Before you start hammering away willy-nilly, take a step back and say, “What do I need to accomplish here? What’s vital in what I’m trying to do, and what’s just nice-to-have? Is this really a problem, or is it caused by something upstream that’s really what I need to be working on?”

RTFM. Read the *#$%^@ manual. (This is especially dear to me because I used to be a technical writer.) Now, I know, not everything has a lovely manual like the kind I used to write. But by gosh and by golly, you won’t know until you take a look, will you? I can’t count the number of times someone has asked me a question that’s perfectly good, but also perfectly easy to answer if they’d spend 5 minutes taking a look at the documentation.

Change one thing at a time. If you’re trying to suss out how something works, you must think of yourself as a scientist performing a little experiment. You must change just one thing at a time to see what happens. If you change two or three or twenty-seven things at a time, how will you know which one is the one that actually worked?

Somebody else already knows. The chances are high that there is someone out there who can answer your questions. Maybe it’s your colleague in the cubicle next door, or maybe it’s somebody with a blog or a book or on a forum or mailing list. (Part of the trick is knowing where to look; do some research. The Internet is your friend, and so is your library.)

If you ask, these people are often eager to teach you what they know. However, a word of warning — there’s a reason this is the fourth tip and not the first one. “Define your problem” and “RTFM” first, or people are likely to be a little peeved at you for dumping your ill-defined problem on them, or asking things you could easily have found out yourself. Get as far as you can on your own, then ask for help.

Don’t believe it until you see it. This is the flipside of “RTFM” and “Somebody already knows”. Some document or person can describe how something is supposed to work, but you should still try it out. (This is especially true when the document happens to be a piece of marketing literature for software.) By trying it yourself, you make it yours. You really understand how and why (or even if) it works.

Good luck

So that’s all I know, and it works for me. I can’t promise any more than that, but I do hope it helped my former coworker, and I hope it helps somebody out there in the blogosphere, too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *