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Always Learning These Days


Field of Flowers

There is something comforting about being an expert on a topic (as long as said topic is not yourself, and even then I would suggest very few of us are actually experts on ourselves).

You have put in all of this time and effort and you know things. You don't have to look up information. You don't have to figure out how to do something. You don't struggle with the example you're looking at, pulling out your hair, only to discover four hours later that the example for the software library you're using was written for two versions back and won't work for the versions you're using now. You don't have to ask for help, because you are the one who is offering the help. You can answer questions. You are the one who creates the examples, tutorials, best practices.

That is a good feeling, being an expert.

And it is such a crock of shit. It is stunningly deceptive.

You let your guard down. You relax. You stop doing research on the subject. Why should you? You know everything. Or, at least enough to be paid very, very well.

The worst part of being an expert, if you aren't a diligent expert?

You stop learning.

You're so busy using the knowledge you have, that you stop learning the new things happening.

Consider the elder doctor. Her way of thinking is what she learned 40 years ago. She might go (likely has to go) to seminars and conferences and updated-techniques education, but the baseline was established 40 years ago when she was younger, in school, and CRAMMING all that knowledge into her head, developing all of her skills. That baseline doesn't include the advances of the last few decades by default.

Do you want someone thinking a lobotomy is the right way to "cure" depression?

You do not.

And, of course, that's an exaggeration, but the concept of a set point, of that moment where learning begins, is not. What you learn first is the hardest part to unlearn. Everything is a change from that moment, not a new concept.

Being an expert is "something fixes your brain in that state," making learning new things more difficult.

Being a non-expert in something is being in this state of discomfort all the time. You don't know how to do the simplest things. You try and you crash, and crash, and crash, and crash. And every time you try, before you crash again, you're a little closer to where you want to be.

The best learning that can be done is to learn how to learn. Understanding what process works for you requires experimentation. Some people learn best sitting in a classroom, having someone else explain concepts to them. Others learn by reading about them. Everyone learns by actually doing what needs to be learned, but even that has nuances. Do you learn by going through a finished example, top to bottom? Or maybe going through a tutorial step by step, learning new things by layering them on the old. Do you try new things? "What happens if I do this?" "No idea, try it." Can you think outside the confines of the lesson to the concept actually being conveyed. Do you play with it, mold it, stretch it, squish it, flatten and ball it up until you understand all the nuances of the idea?

Having been an expert in Drupal for so long, I had forgotten how I learn a new technology. I had forgotten all the techniques that work for me. I sat back on my hard-won knowledge, even as I struggled with the abstraction of an abstraction of an abstraction path Drupal was taking.

And then I went to Shopify. They had faith. They had a way of doing things. I was going to learn.

And I did.

And have been in that perpetual state of learning for the last 14 months, that mental struggle to understand the why along with the how. It was seriously rough going in the beginning. I had forgotten how I learn, how to say "I don't know," and how to say, "I need help." I had forgotten to say, "no," and I had forgotten how to be gentle with myself. I expected to hit the ground running with the speed of a decade of knowledge, and that expectation was terribly incorrect.

A lesson I learned, though, have RElearned, is how to learn. What works for me.

In the last month, I've picked up a number of more frameworks and languages and processes and techniques, and my brain is stuffed and still expanding. I've experimented with technologies I was unsure would fit my needs: some of those experiments failed, some succeeded wildly. All of them were learning experiences. I know 10000 ways not to make a lightbulb now.

I'm sad to say that in the process of being an expert, I had forgotten to be a beginner.

I'm happy to say, I've remembered.

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