It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Stephen King. I don’t get much reading time these days, but I’ve been and still am obsessed with his work. Ever watched The Shining? Yeah, that’s a movie based on his book.
He wrote a piece called “On Writing”. Half of the book is his autobiography, while the other half is about lessons on writing. And one thing that he argues, which I honestly love is:
In order to become a better writer, you need to read & write. A lot.
That’s it. Really. Nothing fancy. Nothing spectacular. No special wooden desks, isolated rooms, and magic mushrooms (although he did enjoy some stimulants). They might come handy, sure, but at the end of the day it boils down to – you have to read a lot and write a lot. All the time. I love theadvice because it’s simple. It’s simple because, well, the whole idea is – to get better at anything, you just have to do tons of it.
I never believed in it, but decided to give it a shot. And let me tell you – as a life-time perfectionist, deciding to just do MORE instead of ensuring that I’m doing the right thing was as counter-intuitive as it gets. “What do you mean ‘just do it’? Am I not supposed to be 100% sure that’s the right thing? Or that I’m going in the right direction? Or, you know, whatever excuse I might come up with?”. But I did it. Or better yet, I gave it a shot. Because, believe it or not, it’s easier to be said than actually done. Try doing something that you think you’re bad at and observe what happens. Soon enough you will start looking for “ways to improve” or “ways to validate that you’re on the right track”. But those are just excuses because you’re anxious to keep doing it. Or at least that was it in my case.
You can learn anything
One of the biggest realizations I had in this year was that maybe, just maybe, I’m not that stupid. But first I need to tell you why.
Namely, I’m not sure if it’s related to myself only, but I have this problem that whenever I enroll myself into something new, I actually feel my head itching and my brain boiling, eventually causing a full blown migraine. And that’s frustrating as shit because it makes you think that your brain is refusing to learn anything new and is reacting by inducing the pain.
It took me quite a long time (20+ years to be more precise) to go and realize that the sensation that I’m feeling is not due to my brain refusing to learn; quite the contrary! It’s HOW I learn stuff. To be more precise – it was learning process enslaved in constant anxiety. Anxiety of “will I be able to learn it? What if I fail? How will that make me look like?”.
This observation is quite interesting because, once I realized that it’s not that I’m becoming more stupid as I age, but more like this is how I learn stuff, it all became a bit easier. I’d come to eventually learn that learning, by itself, is all but a linear process. But nobody ever told me that! Hell, nobody even taught me how to learn! And that’s freakin’ ridicolous because lesson #1 in school should be “This is how you should learn stuff”. Let me repeat this to emphasize my point enough:
Learning and mastering anything new IS NOT a linear process. Au contraire! It’s as chaotic as it gets!
In parallel to this realization, another cool thing happened. I spent 4+ hours in a car with Eddy. Eddy is a guy whose life story is like a damn movie plot. Drama at it’s finest. Started working as a salesman, switched to programming in his mid-twenties, and then in parallel decided to become a REBT therapist as well. Hell, I’m quite sure that you won’t be able to find THREE people in the world who happen to be a Senior Developer and licensed Therapist at the same time.
We spent four hours talking. Talking about a lot of things. And one of the topics we agreed upon is that you can, literally, learn ANYTHING that you want. No kidding. Like, out of all things we disagreed and had diverging opinions on, this one was 100% agreement. Let me repeat that:
You can learn anything. And by anything, I mean ANYTHING!
The only real limitation, aside from the time you have on this planet, would be some hard-imposed rule. Like, I’d probably have a hard time becoming astronaut because I believe there’s some rule that you have to be younger than X. Or – there’s simply no way for me to become U.S. president because I wasn’t born (nor have I ever been) in the US. I CAN learn everything that astronaut or president would need to do his day to day job, but I can’t become one because there are some hard imposed rules that I just can’t put more work on. And yes, I do believe you can be a Full-Stack engineer whose profficient with Backend, Frontend and DevOps. It’s pain in the ass, sure, but it’s absolutely doable.
But what about jacks of all trade, eh? What if you end up being ok in lots of things but not great at anything? I can agree that that’s a stupid tactic, yes. Furthermore, I do agree that in order to MASTER anything, you need to spend tons of time on it; both hands on and off. BUT, and this brings me to the typical “it’s never black or white” kind of scenario. Being jack of most trades and master of a single one is probably the best way to make yourself as unique as possible. Hell, that’s exactly what Eddy did! I mean, realistically speaking, how many Senior Engineers who happen to be licensed REBT therapists have you met? I’ll wait …
You can learn anything. Absolutely anything. My parents decided to enroll in Astrology University in their late 60s. And they did this after both of them having PhDs and quite successful careers in Medicine and Economy. Why did they do it? Because they found it interesting! They were curious about it! And they didn’t want to spend last quarter of their life being delusional and stuck in a chair. They wanted to learn it and they actually DID four years of that uni. They never started the official business practice, but they enjoy doing it for friends, family and acquintaces all day long. So, if they were able to learn a completely new and unrelated thing in late 60s – WTF is your excuse?
How to learn effectively?
I’m glad you asked! Because I have no clue how to do it “effectively”. I’m sure there’s heap of books and tutorials on “how to become better at learning”. But I just had no time nor interest to dig into them. So I’ll give you a different kind of advice – just do it. Literally. Just keep doing shit tons of it and eventually you’ll start building that knowledge. As the title says – to get better at drawing circles, you need to draw more circles.
One of my favorite Stephen King’s quotes is his answer to “How do you write so much?”, where he replies with “One word at a time”. It sounds funny, but it’s true. Really. Trying to find a workaround or an “effective” way is pretty much like trying to make money by gambling. It could work out. Or it could fail. But at the end of the day you will spend more time trying to find a proper way, instead of just doing it.
I’ll give you a couple of examples of my own. I wanted to start this blog for years, but I spent most of the time thinking HOW to start, WHAT to name it, WHICH logo to use, WILL I ever exhaust the topics, etc. I just kept overthinking it. Eventually, it was really a “fuck it, let’s just do it” kind of moment where I decided to just write. And I did – I wrote my first article on Joe Rogan. People kept asking me why the heck would anyone write about Joe Rogan and my reply was simple – because I wanted to write about damn Joe Rogan! I’m a huge fan, I love his podcast, I used to listen to it day & night at the time and, well, I wanted to write about it! Then I wrote another one and another one and another one. And over time it just kept growing. Then I had people approach me telling me they liked something I wrote, and that made me want to write more. It’s that simple. Did I write some crap articles? Sure! I think most of my articles are crap. But some people seem to like them and that’s enough for me to keep writing.
Another example would be public speaking. I wanted to try it out badly, but there was not a single conference that would accept my talk proposals. I had no prior record and nothing to show so, naturally, I kept getting rejection after rejection. Was it depressing? Sure! But did I keep applying? You bet I did! I just figured out that it’s a freakin’ game of numbers that I have to keep playing. And play did I. And then one conference accepted me. And then another. And another. And another. Lo and behold, 2 years of public speaking career and I have (at this time at least) almost 20 gigs behind me! Yep! Twenty! Some were live, some were online, but now I have a track record that I can showcase when I apply and that makes more conferences accept me. It’s a circle; one that keeps improving!
Which really brings me to the point of “how to be effective at learning” (or how to become better at anything):
You get more effective at learning stuff by doing it again and again. 15 minutes today, 20 mins tomorrow, 5 mins day after tomorrow. Eventually you build your own framework which you keep improving and, voila – you found a way to become more effective! Congrats!
Does talent play a role?
Possibly. But not in the way you’d think it does. I believe, and Daniel Coyle wrote a whole book about it called The Talent Code where he argues that talent is not born but is created. It’s created by doing LOTS of repetition. Lots of repeated repetition. Day after day. Day after day. Pushing that pain bareer over and over. Over and over. Until it becomes less of a barrier. And then you became effective.
As for the talent itself – it probably plays a role in terms of reaching the ultimate maximum. As in – I could surely become a great sprinter to the point of being in the top 10% or so. Give me couple of years and you’d see me compete with the elite. But getting into top 1% would require some genetics which, sadly, I don’t have. And that’s exactly what I believe the “talent” is all about – a physical (or mental) predisposition that you simply can use to get into top 1%. But you still have to put shitload of work to beat the first 90%!
What’s the summary of this?
The summary is simple – if you want to learn or get better at anything, you have to do lots of it. At first it will suck. Then it will suck a bit less. Then a bit less. And eventually it won’t suck that much, which is a point where you reached a milestone. Pat yourself on the back. From this point, you find another target and then you keep repeating that process. Rinse&repeat. Rinse&repeat. Much suck, less suck, no suck, good luck. And then all over.
Does it work? Yes! Yes, it does. It’s what got me into Microsoft in the first place. I started prepping up for it some 3 years ago and I absolutely HATED it. I hated doing those Leetcode tasks, revisiting university lectures, learning system design bits and pieces, etc. I hated it (and still do!). But I kept doing it. Every single morning, I’d do it for 30mins. Every damn morning that I hated more than anything in this world. Did I want to quit? You wouldn’t believe how many times. Especially given the fact I god rejected TWICE in the past! But I kept doing that shit because I somehow believed that it will pay off one way or another. And it did. It paid multifold and I’m happy that I kept doing it! I kept drawing those stupid circles until I made myself a master of freakin’ circles.
As Joe Rogan said multiple times – trust the process. It’s all about trusting that damn process. Trust the process and it will work out.
Other stuff you might like:
- Hijacking the ML train
- How I Learned to Learn (or how to learn effectively as an adult)
- How I Learned To Read (and read 30 books in a year)