All our lives, people have told us to learn everything about something before trying it in the “real world”. Yet this fast paced world demands that we move before we know everything about a subject. Instead of waiting to change your career, for the perfect internship, or enrolling in more school, you should tweak your education so that you learn and apply skills quickly.
Many people spend their whole lives waiting to be ready. For us, ready often becomes moreof an excuse than a prerequisite.
For example, you don’t need a certificate to tell you that you’re a design pro. Karen X. Cheng learned design in six months while working full-time. She made it work by moving before she thought she was “ready,” and so can you.
Focus on Just-In-Time Learning, Not Just-In-Case Learning
There are two types of learning: you perform “just-in-time” learning when you acquire information just before it is needed (e.g., on-the-job training). In contrast, you perform “just-in-case” learning when you acquire information far in advance of when you need it (e.g., traditional schooling). We only use a small portion of the just-in-case knowledge we acquire in school for our day-to-day work. This type of just-in-case learning is not very effective.
You’ll quickly see the importance of just-in-time learning and be forced to apply it to the real world. Or, you’ll fail, and learn the hard way. Entrepreneur and angel investor Dan Martell writes on his blog:
Focus on learning and getting the right advice in near-real time. Trying to anticipate the skills and information you will need to acquire months before you actually need it can result in a lot of wasted time.
You’ll still need a bit of just-in-case learning, though. Specifically, you’ll need to understand the tools or techniques necessary to achieve certain results. As math professor John Cook explains in an earlier article on Lifehacker:
On the other hand, you need to know what’s available, even if you’re only going to learn the details just in time. You can’t say “I need to learn about version control system now” if you don’t even know what version control is. You need to have a survey knowledge of technology just in case. You can learn APIs just in time. But there’s a big gray area in between where it’s hard to know what is worthwhile to learn and when.
The key to balancing just-in-case and just-in-time learning is ruthless prioritization and quick deadlines.
Figure Out Your Minimum Effective Dose
A chinese scholar understands over 20,000 Chinese characters, but you only need to understand 1,000 to be literate. The most frequently used 200 characters will allow you to understand 40% of basic literature (enough to read signs, restaurant menus, and basic newspapers).
This is what author Tim Ferriss calls the “Minimum Effective Dose,” or MED. It’s the smallest dose that will produce a desired outcome. For example, approximately 1,000 words will make you conversational in a language. This concept applies to all sorts of desired outcomes.
Another example: if you’ve decided to be a blogger, you just need to know how to set up a blog on a platform like WordPress, create a post, and publish it. You can learn how to change the theme, how to gain attention, SEO, and all those other skills later.
Prioritize Depth Over Breadth
You will be tempted to dabble in everything. Don’t. Stay focused on the minimum effective dose for a specific outcome before you explore other options. Get really good at one thing before moving on to other skills. As author Josh Waitzkin explains in The Art of Learning:
It would be absurd to try to teach a new figure skater the principle of relaxation on the ice by launching straight into triple axels. She should begin with the fundamentals of gliding along the ice, turning, and skating backwards with deepening relaxation. Then, step by step, more and more complicated maneuvers can be absorbed, while she maintains the sense of ease that was initially experienced within the simplest skill set.
But don’t get ahead of yourself. Stay focused on the immediate desired outcome and the skills required to achieve it.
Connect with Others to Accelerate Learning
People who have achieved your goals can be catalysts to your learning. You can save time and learn from their mistakes. You can take a deeper dive into what they do, and understand the habits and skills that were key to their success. Author Robert Green writes in Mastery:
The people in your field, in your immediate circle, are like worlds unto themselves – their stories and viewpoints will naturally expand your horizons and build up your social skills. Mingle with as many different types of people as possible. Those circles will slowly widen.
Logistically speaking, it’s possible to connect with anyone these days. (If you want to find an email address quickly, try previously mentioned Norbert.) Naturally, the other person has to want to help. If they do, creating a relationship with them can be valuable to your growth.
If you choose someone who isn’t busy (e.g., retirees), they’re more likely to reply. On the other hand, if you’re trying to connect with someone who’s busy in the field right now, you could learn about their skills and techniques through one of their close associates. In both cases, you should bring some value to the table. Tim Ferriss elaborates in The 4 Hour Body:
“Do me a favor” is not a compelling pitch. The proposed interview should somehow benefit your contact.
The path of least resistance is to freelance write for a blog, newsletter, or local newspaper and do a piece on this person and his/her methods, or to quote him/her on a related topic as an expert (“Expert Predictions for Winter Olympics,” for instance). Once you’re in the door, ask your expert all the questions you’d like. Are you terrible at writing? No problem. Make it a Q&A format and simply print the relevant questions and answers.
Once you’ve connected with them and set up a conversation or interview, your challenge will be to make a good first impression. If it’s just over email, you should ask pointed questions that are easy to answer. Do research before you get in touch with them (e.g., reading interviews or listening to podcasts they’ve participated in) so you don’t ask them about something you should’ve known. Nothing rubs people the wrong way like lazy questions.
At a previous job, my editor gave me a crucial piece of advice that improved my knowledge acquisition: he recommended that I ask, “How?”, or “Can you give an example of that?” much more frequently during interviews. He said that he did this at least a dozen times in an interview. These real-world, or even hypothetical, examples help us learn much more quickly and remember things more effectively. (Thanks Sean!)
If you develop your relationships carefully enough, you’ll find that some of these people can become your mentors.
Explore a Real-Life Example
A little less than a year ago, I saw something that I really wanted to make: the Pharrell article in Complex Magazine. The interactive elements completely caught my eye and regularly renewed my attention. What if readers could interact with my articles like that? I could tell stories in a much more immersive way.
At the time, I knew absolutely nothing about coding, and had little experience with web design. I was looking into the mother of all interactive articles, Snow Fall, and discovered the term “Parallax” (basically, when one layer scrolls at a different rate than another one).
I knew I didn’t have to become great at front end web design or graphic design (depth over breadth), I just needed to make those pages with parallax and scrolling effects really well. I already knew how to write case studies and stories, so I prioritized my search for discovering the minimum effective dosage of coding. I had no idea what that specifically looked like.
I talked to my friend, a software developer, and he told me about a library called Skrollr. Up until this point, I hadn’t even thought of building on top of a library or framework. That saved me no less than a dozen hours in research. I can’t emphasize the power of connecting with others to accelerate learning enough. (Thanks Jon!)
Building on that just-in-case information, I could search around for “Skrollr parallax tutorials”. There was one with a template, so I downloaded it and started tinkering with it (just-in-time learning). Another friend showed me Anvil, and I started messing around with the elements of that template locally. (Thanks Dami!) Eventually, I built a webpage for one of my favorite musicians. I uploaded it to my own website and shared the URL with him via email. He liked the design and we tweaked it to match his branding. He then published it on his website. (Sadly, we had to remove the Parallax element from it because Skrollr didn’t play friendly with mobile at the time.) But I got a chance to work with a really interesting person and learn about web design, the entertainment industry, and public relations.
Skip the Artificial Prerequisite
Remember, dramatic change isn’t a prerequisite for picking up a new skill you’re curious about. It can be much more gradual.
As you master these skills one by one, you’ll find that more doors open. Instead of waiting for opportunities, you can create more and more of them.
There are situations that warrant schooling. For example, if you find that you really enjoy graphic design but are looking to take things to the next level, or if you’re in a field that demands credibility, then school may be a good option.
But in other situations, done is better than perfect. Before dropping tens of thousands of dollars in tuition, I’d suggest making these small changes first and picking up these skills for free. Not only will it save you money and frustration, it will also be a low-commitment way to verify whether you really like what you think you do.
Photo by Martin Cathrae.