in Career


Have you ever talked to someone that was very passionate about something? It is easy to see that their passion drives a lot of their actions and decisions. The ability to satisfy this desire can play a large role in a person’s overall well being. Unfortunately, most of us are faced with finding time among everything else in their life to pursue this labor of love.

My passion is learning. I love to learn things. I love to learn about lots of different things. To combat the finite time we have have I decided to try to engineer a better learning strategy.

A good portion of what I am seeking to learn is based on the demands of my career. It seems that with each day, the software industry doubles the speed at which it moves. A quick glance on twitter or hacker news can leave even seasoned developers with a feeling of imposter syndrome.

Though much of this post will focus on the quest for technical knowledge, I must state that it is important to expose yourself to a wider variety of subjects. By broadening your horizons, you allow yourself the room to gain different perspectives than you initially may have. This is how new ideas are conceived.

Here is how I go about learning:

Strategy: Learn 50% out

Have you ever landed on a Wikipedia page only to find that 30 minutes you have 15 different Wikipedia tabs open?

If you are inquisitive like myself, each new unknown term or concept only fuels your curiosity. In my particular field, things can get very technical very fast. That is why I have adopted the notion of “learning 50% out”. That is, if I can understand at least half of the material, I try to make it through reading the whole article, book, or podcast etc.

This allows the parts that I don’t quite understand to have time to sit in the subconscious part of my mind. As you learn more about the particular topic, those unknown pieces begin to reveal themselves. When employing this strategy it is important to not get frustrated by those unknown terms or concepts. I simply file them away as “not yet known” and read on. It has been shown that spaced recollection of memories helps strengthen understanding.

Tool: Pocket

Pocket is a beautiful application for storing articles. It is available on the web, desktop and mobile devices. It also allows saving the content for offline viewing. I have come to adapt Pocket as my tool of choice when consuming written information. If you are going to be commuting (and not driving) it is a great way occupy your time. You can even tag the content for easy grouping and searching.

Tool: Twitter

Twitter seems to let me hear what the thought leaders of my industry are thinking. There is something very exciting about getting to watch a heated discussion of ideas unfold in real time by the people you look up to. I was also very surprised to find out how easy it was to join these conversations. Often we get intimidated by these “internet famous” personalities, but most of the time they turn out to be really friendly people.

A tweet from @getify or @_ericelliott with 50 responses: jackpot!

Strategy: Audio Content

When you are really trying to get something accomplished, the best bet is to buckle down and focus. However there is still plenty of room for multitasking. This is the perfect place for audio content. While driving to work turn on an audiobook rather than the radio. Likewise I find trips to the grocery store to be the perfect length to put in headphones and listen to a podcast. While you may not retain at the same level, had you read the content, it helps you to navigate where you should spend time reading.

Tool: Audible

First, as a web developer, I think Audible killed it on their mobile website. It has become my go to resource when I am trying to find non-technical content to listen to. The cost is rather low, and Audible provides a wide range of books. The base plan for $15 allows you to get one book per month. The current goal I employ is to listen to one new book per month and re-listen to an existing one in my library.

Tool: Podcast

This is like the audio version of twitter, but you get to hear the voices of your digital mentors. And if you happen to meet them one day, you may feel just a little more comfortable.

Funny story. I am heading to San Fransisco for a conference, and I reached out to twitter to see if anyone wanted to meet up for coffee. Someone from the company I am currently interested in learning from with reached out. A few weeks later, I heard him on their podcast and learned he was actually their CMO. The internet is pretty cool.

Strategy: Teaching

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know — Donald Rumsfeld

This is probably my favorite method of learning. Trying to explain concepts to others not only forces you to think of ways to relate to existing knowledge, but it also leaves room for interesting questions. Because everyone has their own unique understanding of something, the questions they may pose are often ones you yourself have not thought about. Having to respond with “I am not sure of the answer to that” is a great way to shed light on areas that you need to focus on. Another great benefit of this method is the satisfaction of helping another person in their own quest to betterment.

Tool: Code Mentor

Upon first encountering Code Mentor about a year ago, it looked like a great way to earn some extra money. You state areas of expertise and receive notifications when someone needs help in one of those prospective subjects. I grew to enjoy how these sessions caused you to learn the other persons scenario quickly due to the limited time allotted. Having to recall and create solutions quickly allows you to think about the technical constraints in different ways than you would under normal conditions. If I were a chess player, I would imagine this is what playing speed chess would be like.

In Conclusion: Step Away

As obsessed as we can get with things in our lives, it is very important to step away from time to time and give yourself rest. This is often a very hard thing to do. Take a walk and appreciate the world around you. Spend some time being silly with friends or enjoying dinner with family. It is the combination of all these things that builds a great life. One of my personal favorite activities is going to the gym. I have found that lifting heavy things above my face seems to clear my mind pretty quickly.

Need a hand?
  • Do you have a strategy for avoiding noise on twitter and tech blogs?

    • Justin Obney

      For tech blogs, I typically find them via aggregate newsletters. I set aside some time to open the top links from email, scan them to see if they look interesting, then save to Pocket for later viewing.

      Twitter can be tough. I don’t stay on it all day. I keep interesting people in lists and scan the list a time or two during the day.