What It Really Takes to Learn Something New

In Business, Opinion, Technology
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A few months ago, a coworker of mine asked me, “how did you learn X?” I can’t remember what “X” was, but I very clearly remember the context for the question: this was a person who wanted to know how I always had the answers to her work related questions. She couldn’t stump me.

At the time, I gave her an answer that was true on a certain level: I’ve worked within an intersection of internet, IT, and videography for a number of years. I’ve accumulated a lot of varied skills in that time—skills that are foundational and easily transferable as unanticipated needs arise.

In other words, I’m a jack of all trades. I can build off of what I already know to quickly learn something new.

In that response, I was speaking to the mechanics of it. I was giving her an answer to what I thought she was really asking—demythologizing my (apparently) omnipotent wealth of knowledge. I wanted her to know that I wasn’t exceptional. She could do what I do, too.

But there was a deeper answer here—one she may or may not have been asking for. One she may or may not have wanted to hear.

The truth is, to really learn something new, you have to put in the time. I don’t mean hours, days, or weeks; I mean months and years. You have to invest a staggering amount of time to become great at something.

That’s not a sexy answer. At the time, I didn’t even think to offer it. She probably didn’t want to hear it. Most people wouldn’t.

For example, one of my marketable skills is web development. I’ve been tinkering with HTML since I was a kid and building not entirely hideous websites over 10 years ago. But I’ve really only started investing a significant portion of my energy into web development over the last four years.

You have to invest a staggering amount of time to become great at something.

When I think back on all the hours I’ve spent learning CSS, JavaScript, MySQL, and CMS’s of different stripes—frankly, I feel a little bit ill. This business is all about problem solving. Many of the problems you encounter tend to have tiny, hard-to-pinpoint causes that take hours to unearth—if you’re lucky. Just the other day, I spent multiple hours figuring out the best way to scale Google’s reCAPTCHA iframe, just so it wouldn’t extend 10 pixels off the edge of a small mobile screen.

Hours. Accomplishing basically fuck all. Solving a non-problem that only I really cared about.

I could have meditated, or spent some quality time with my girlfriend, or called a friend I haven’t talked to in months. From a certain perspective, it seems like a gross waste of time. Add up the countless hours like these and you could make a reasonable case that I’m wasting my life.

But from another perspective, I now have an excellent method for managing too-large iframe embeds within a responsive design. I’m not going to turn a dollar on that today, but these little things add up over time. They make me a better programmer and problem solver. They make me a web developer more worthy of a bigger job.

Yet when someone next asks me, “how did you learn web development?” my answer will probably be along the lines of, “I taught myself. I have an attention for detail.”

The truth—that I decided to spend endless hours over a period of years with my eyes glued to a computer screen—they won’t want to hear that.

But that’s really what it takes.

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