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Effective Learning in Three Steps

Why learn?

The most important skill for the age we live in is learning. If you are able to learn quickly you will not really be worried about the robots taking our jobs, or the industry you are in dying. You will be able to transform yourself, you will be adaptable. Like your ancestors before you, you will be able to survive the Ice Age, or as in our case the equivalent is to learn that damn python module - actually, it doesn’t really compare does it?

Sadly, very few people make learning a part of their lives.

As Data Scientists we have to learn all the time, the field is vast and moving rapidly. This is a good thing, but keeping up can be a challenge. Learning, and in particular efficient learning is something I have been obsessed with for a long time.

Learning today

As a kid I hated libraries. I liked them for being quiet places you could read a book. However, whenever there was an assignment the real pain was actually finding a relevant book. You’d type in the search in the library catalogue, a horrible black and white Atari screen thing, you’d have to work out what it was, where it was and you’d have to find the book or magazine. Then you’d read it and work out it was exactly not what you were looking for. You’d then have to start again.

Now all the information in the world is available to us instantly. So it now becomes a question of being bothered to find what it is you want to learn, sit down, and learn it.

This guy called the “Tech Lead” has one of the best short videos about how to learn to code. Pretty much his message is “make a tea and sit down for a few hours regularly and just do it”. He has amazing dry humour, so it is well worth checking out his video

My learning

I didn’t really get learning until I was about 27 when I taught myself Data Science on a train, a few years later I was managing data science teams.

Later working with startups I have had to learn data science, web development, digital marketing, growth hacking. I have had to learn various domains from insurance and banking to online advertising and supply chains. The last 10 years have been non-stop learning, everyday.

I probably spend 2-3 hours every day learning. Sadly many of the people I worked with 10 years ago are still doing the same job they were doing 10 years ago, 10 years for them has just been the same year repeated 10 times.

The learning strategy

So here is my strategy for learning something new. It is more of a hierarchy, as you will see.

The only prerequisite is that you actually want to learn the thing otherwise, the rest doesn’t happen, have an end goal in mind before you begin. This is usually something you want to be able to build or be able to do.

1. Burn through material on the subject to be “conversationally across” the subject.

The idea is that you have the big picture at this point, and you know what you don’t know so you can avoid going down rabbit holes and wasting time. The aim in this stage is to get a broad understanding of the subject.

2. Deliberate practice on exercises, examples or tutorials

So now you know the subject, try to do some deliberate practice with the material. This is a little bit of “monkey see, monkey do”, at this stage it is OK. Just don’t get stuck at this point for too long (the tutorial wheel). Just do enough to build your confidence.

3. Build the thing you wanted to build

This stage is about stepping beyond the tutorials to solve a real-world problem and THIS is where the real learning happens.

The process I described above can take a few days, a few hours or a few weeks depending on what you are learning. It shouldn’t take months, and you should be directed to your project or end goal.

The intangibles you need

  • Have passion

  • Have a community - attend meetups etc so you don’t get stagnated.

  • See learning as a vital part of your job.

Pro tips:

  • Videos can be played at 2-3x speed, allowing you to burn through MOOCs

  • You can train yourself to read faster, a couple of books per day isn’t out of the question

  • Compare courses and curriculums and work out the best path to get to your goal

  • Teaching is the best way to learn, so coach, mentor or just explain it to someone

My learning obsession

For those of you who are interested, here are some of the resources I have found helpful to learn about learning:

Learning How to Learn Coursera

Tony Buzan’s books

Scott Young

The First 20 hours

Arnold Rimmer, or how not to learn

"Don’t be the guy or gal who wastes time trying to learn new things."