The first goal when starting to learn something new is to familiarize yourself with the vocabulary. Additionally understanding the concepts, foundational ideas, key figures, and the history, will give you a deeper appreciation for what you’re learning. It’ll also allow you to form new insights and ask questions that go beyond the surface level.
One of the best ways to acquire this vocabulary is to approach multiple resources simultaneously. For example, you may be enrolled in a technical machine learning course, while also watching West World, and listening to a podcast which interviews experts in machine learning. By adding multiple resources you’ll start to notice common ideas and phrases, presented in different formats.
Here are some resources that can help when you’re starting out:
Books — Don’t restrict yourself to only non-fiction! Some of the most thought-provoking and educational books can come out of fiction. Neal Stephenson is a renowned author of fiction, who packs his books with tons of educational content. Take some time to also read biographies of key figures and the history of the field you’re learning. This will give you some context of how it started and where it may be going.
Courses - Online or in-person courses are a great way to familiarize yourself with vocabulary in a more structured setting. They also offer an opportunity for you to get to know other students who are on the same learning journey. There are any number of Massively Open Online Classrooms, some of which are free and others paid. Coursera, Edx, and Udemy all offer a diverse set of courses that will likely cover the subject you’re interested in learning.
Media — On top of courses you may also find short or long-form content in the form of podcasts, videos, and articles that will help complement your learning. As with books, try to expand your scope beyond the technical. If you’re learning biology, then it may be interesting to watch sci-fi tv movies which grapple with ethical dilemmas associated with our increasing mastery over biology. Documentaries are also great for getting a short overview of a field and familiarizing yourself with top experts. Also, make sure to search YouTube since there’s a high likelihood that someone has created a channel to help you learn.
Practice and Testing - One of the best ways to increase your vocabulary and understanding is through practice and testing. This can be as simple as creating flashcards for terms or can involve more practical problems related to your field. Active recall has proven to be one of the best techniques to solidify your learning, so make sure to take advantage of this!
Once you feel like you have a good grasp of vocabulary, it’s time to meet some people! The three groups of individuals that you should seek out are Mentors, Peers, and Mentees. Building a learning tribe that consists of these three groups will help you confront holes in your knowledge, while also receiving guidance and support.
Mentors are people who have achieved some level of mastery or expertise in the field you’re interested in. They can help you identify areas of weakness, answer specific questions and provide milestones for you to strive towards. Peers are other learners who have a similar level of expertise. The advantage of having a peer is that you’ll often encounter similar learning challenges, allowing each of you an opportunity to teach and learn from one another. Mentees are people who may be just starting out. Richard Feynman, a Nobel winning physicist, was known for saying “*If you can’t explain something in simple terms, you don’t understand it.”. *Thus mentees provide an opportunity for you to test how thoroughly you actually understand something.
Here are some areas you can find these people:
Online Communities — Slack and Discord are frequently used by niche communities who want to have to create a more intimate community. While there are plenty of Facebook online communities, they aren’t nearly as versatile or engaging as the former two. Other options include Twitter, which often has its own sub-Twitter communities, Quora where you can ask and answer questions, and Medium where you can identify experts who write about the content you’re interested in.
Offline Communities — Depending on what you’re learning and where you live, there’s a good chance that there exists some sort of offline community filled with similarly motivated learners. Take a look at websites such as Meetup, Facebook’s discover event feature or Eventbrite.
Paid Mentor — A more effective way of finding a mentor is to pay for one. Informal mentors may not have the ability to meet with you regularly or have a background in mentoring. Paid mentors, on the other hand, will have had lots of experience working with people of your skill level and can meet with you on your own terms. Depending on the subject, you can either find specific websites for mentors (e.g. HackHands a website for programming mentors) or more general websites such as Super Prof which have a wide variety of teachers and mentors.
Once you’ve learned the vocabulary, and formed your learning tribe, it’s time to apply your knowledge! This is an important step in your learning journey as it allows you to consolidate your learning, and get feedback from others. Whether you choose to apply your knowledge through writing, programming, or another way of expressing your knowledge, the key is to weave in your learning in a way that feels authentic.
There are any number of ways for you to apply your knowledge, however, three general areas are:
Experiences — Applying your knowledge within the context of experiences could involve giving a talk to share your knowledge with a wider audience, or organizing a dinner group with the intention of discussing your subject in depth. Showcasing your knowledge by creating experiences also serves as a great way to identify mentors, peers, and mentees.
Products - Creating a product whether free or paid, is a fantastic way of consolidating your knowledge. Products could range from mobile apps, websites, physical products, or even an online course. An example using an abstract subject such as Ethics might be a mobile app that helps users crowdsource advice related to ethical problems in their life. Inside the app, you could write articles explaining various ethical frameworks that would serve to educate users and help them make morally informed decisions.
Media — Distribution channels for content such as Medium, LinkedIn, Quora and Youtube all serve as a great way to share your learning with a wider audience. You might start by creating content and guides to help out learners who are just starting out or simply answering questions that other people have. This will allow you to clarify your thinking, and get feedback.
After following this framework, all that’s left is to climb the ladder of competency in your given field. At a certain point in your learning journey, you may even benefit from learning another complementary field that can help you deepen and generate new insights. For example, if you’ve spent the last 6 months learning to program, you may benefit from learning about Product so that you can improve the products that you build.
If you’re interested in more tactical advice on learning, I’d recommend reading my other article on learning how to learn.