Joe Petrich

Product solutions engineer @google-pay, Pitt CS grad, ham radio enthusiast, linguist

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How I learn new things

Published Feb 09, 2021

In most situations, it is more important to be able to learn something, than to already know it. When starting most jobs, it is rare that you will be expected to be adept at everything required for that job on day one. Your success will be measured by your ability to learn how to perform well in new situations, and to become an expert in subjects you previously left undiscovered. Even if your job doesn’t require such adaptability - perhaps you are a surgeon, a pilot, or a skilled tradesman - learning new things opens up other avenues of opportunity in your personal life through hobbies, shared interests with friends and family, and financial wellbeing. In this article, I’d like to share how I think about learning new things, with a few examples that I hope will help you too.

What do I want to learn?

When I identify something I want to learn, it usually takes the form of a problem statement rather than a direct question. Sometimes the problem statement is open-ended, such as, “How can I get the skills necessary to be a better leader?” and sometimes it is more focused, as in, “What’s this ‘decentralized finance’ term I’ve been hearing, and should I invest time and effort into it?” In the first case, I haven’t narrowed the problem space down enough to start doing meaningful learning, and in the second, I have a fairly concrete question that I can answer before directing my search for knowledge further. When I have a broad problem statement, I like to get a handle on it by asking some more targeted questions. This helps me identify the right way to work towards an answer, and often leads me to reject the initial problem statement once I have a better understanding of the space. For example, if I’ve identified I want to become a better leader, I’d ask myself, “Who are some people I think of as great leaders, and how did they become great?” “Why do I want to be a better leader?” “What makes me think I’m not already as good a leader as I need to be?” The answers to these questions will help me find the right people to talk to, identify other ways to accomplish my underlying motivation for the initial goal, and narrow down my objective so I can ask better questions faster.

Find enthusiasts

When I’ve identified what I want to know, I try to identify people who already know about it. Sometimes this means having a conversation with someone I know who is already knowledgeable to get recommendations for books, videos or websites. When I wanted to learn classical philosophy, I asked a friend’s wife, who majored in philosophy, for book recommendations, and walked away having resolved to read Plato’s Republic. Usually though, I don’t have such a great personal connection, and in such circumstances, I’ve found that online forums are really useful to get a pulse on a topic and how experts, or at least enthusiasts, approach it. For many topics I’ve wanted to learn about, including aquariums, 3d printing, mechanical keyboards, whisky, and coffee, Reddit has been a great introduction. I usually browse recent posts to see if I can get a good general sense of the quality of discussion, and also look at the top posts of the past month and year to identify what has excited the community the most recently. As an example, going to reddit.com/r/coffee today shows that people are interested in grind size distribution, the merits of various coffee machines and grinders, optimizing coffee taste from bean storage through brewing, and debugging their espresso machines. Zooming out to the top posts of the past year reveals interesting questions about working in coffee, scientific inquiry into how the chemistry of water affects taste, and how the coronavirus impacts one’s enjoyment of coffee. If you’ve heard of “specialty coffee” and wanted to get an idea of what that term entails, browsing these few Reddit posts would give you a great introduction. For other topics, another forum may be more popular. Ham radio, for instance, has active subreddits, but there is more activity on other forums like qrz.com.

Take a deep dive

Sometimes, taking a survey and reading the thoughts of enthusiasts is enough to give me the context I’m looking for. At this point I might be satisfied - perhaps I realized I’m not as interested as I thought I would be, or I have enough information to do the part of my job that required some insight. Often, though, this broad context whets my appetite for more. Depending on the subject, going deep looks different - the best and most fundamental material might take the form of textbooks, literature, or videos. Again, I lean on the community to point me to these resources. Many online communities maintain wikis filled with links for beginners. I find it useful to make use of these resources, even if they appear tangential to what I’m trying to learn both because these resources will point to others, and because it’s useful to reference them when engaging with the community in the future. Posts like “I read A, B, and C from the ‘getting started’ guide and had these questions…” will get a much more useful and positive response than “Tell me about X.”

Learn by teaching

After a few days of immersing myself in a topic - reading forum posts, articles, and books, watching videos, and listening to podcasts, I’ll either feel confident in my newfound knowledge, amazed at how much there still is to learn, or befuddled by the variety of conflicting things I’ve read. To clarify my own thoughts and distill them into coherency, I find it very helpful to teach someone else. As Flannery O’Connor said, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” Whether it’s through writing or talking about it, outputting what I’ve learned helps me identify what I’d bet on and what’s still rolling around in my head trying to find its resting place. Another benefit of sharing is getting someone else’s thoughts and questions. When I’ve discussed topics I’m starting to learn about with other novices, I’ve received great fundamental questions that help me refocus my attention on basic understanding, and when I’ve had conversations with subject-matter experts after learning the fundamentals, I’ve been able to understand their insights, accelerating my learning process.

Final thoughts

What did you think of this article? Do you approach learning in a similar way? Let me know by sending me an email at joe@petrich.xyz.