Four great ways to Learn...

(...and one you might not like)

Learn from Somebody Dumber than You

"Every man I meet is in some way my superior." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

We were in Athens (ah the joy of European Union Research Projects) and I was talking to some Polish guys. I was suggesting that before we start writing any software, we should go and do some "low-tech" activities with the school kids who were going to be the final users of our fantastic new technology. I'd say this guy was in his late forties - lets call him Marek. He was director of a medium-sized software company with maybe 50 employees. "What can a 10 year old teach me!" he snorted.

I told you there was going to be one that you didn't like, you can skip down the page if you want, but this is the interesting one. Hear me out. As you get older, you get smarter and smarter, and wiser and wiser. You get more and more skilled in whatever it is that you do. You get fancier and fancier titles - hey aren't you Chief Head General Technical Development Officer of Grand Vizier High Poo Bah right now? You're really important right? So, here's the problem. The higher up this mountain of achievement you get, the harder it is to find anybody "smarter" than you to teach you anything in your own field. All the books are for beginners, and the gurus? You went to college with the gurus, that guy stole your girlfriend, that woman's CTO of your chief competitor, she's not going to teach you anything. Do you see where this is leading? You're climbing a mountain of enlightenment, but you're also digging yourself a hole. The more and more senior you get, the fewer and fewer people can teach you anything in your direct field of expertise. But as if that isn't bad enough, the more and more senior you get the more and more danger there is of what Roger Fisher calls "status spillover" and I call "status creep."

Status creep is the insidious assumption that because you are very important you know everything there is to know about everything. And the more important you get in your organisation, the more the junior people around you will collude with you in this deluded opinion. In my opinion someone like Richard Dawkins is a status creep but that's a rant for another blog. In short it's the "What can a ten year old teach me?" attitude.

Richard Dawkins - stepping outside his area of expertise? (Picture courtesy of Torley)

Status creep is very dangerous because you can very quickly get to a point where you think that what you don't know isn't worth knowing. The question is, ARE YOU SMART ENOUGH TO LEARN FROM SOMEONE DUMBER THAN YOURSELF? The attitude that everyone can teach you something is an amazing one to have. If you can (at least every now and again) approach the world with this attitude, there's the possibility of carrying on learning until your final breath. Well, if you are, then that's where I come in. I'm not as smart as you are. I don't know everything there is to know about your business. I don't know everything there is to know about project management or even about Agile. I do know a bit about communicating Agile concepts. I do know a bit about putting people at their ease in training courses and giving them the opportunity to look at their work from a different point of view and improve their skills and techniques. I know which Agile concepts people have the most difficulty with (stories, velocity) and I know ways of easing them through these difficulties.

So, if you're down and troubled and you need a helping hand. You might sit down and ask yourself some of these questions.

  • What can I learn from someone who earns half my salary?

  • What can I learn from someone half or a even a third of my age?

  • What can I learn from someone I don't like?

  • What can I learn from the people who work for me?

  • What can I learn from my boss, who's a complete idiot?

  • or even... What could I learn from a trainer?

Those other four great methods of learning.

Read a Book

Books, audiobooks, DVDs and other "informational products", you don't have to read. You can listen to it or watch it on your iPod. Books etc. can be very informative. I hope I'm not telling you anything new here. Of course, theory is no substitute for practice, just a practice is no substitute for theory. I start on many new topics this way and sites like Amazon are great for suggested further reading. And - I know I shouldn't say this but it's true - bittorrent sites like Pirate Bay are great for checking out informational stuff, like audiobooks, especially for business and software development, (a representative of the FBI may call) before you actually buy.

Find Yoda

Find someone who knows it all in your field. An expert, a guru. This can be very good, but it can be harder than you think for several reasons. First, you've got to find your guru, of course, gurus are few and far between, so this might take more time and effort than you expected. Second, gurus are in great demand - a lot of people will have had the same idea that you've had - so the guru will probably have put some obstructions in the way to make it hard to get to him. Third, in order to get anything out of a guru, if there is something that he can teach you, YOU have to do lots of work. This guy is the guru. He's not going to go to the effort of spoon-feeding you all the basic concepts you need to get started. He's not going to bother with you at all if you haven't even got the basics. He's not going to go through everything he says and make sure that it's all on the "same page." Tim Ferris has written very convincingly about this in his book "The Four Hour Work Week."

Buddy Up

One of the quickest and most powerful ways to learn anything is to watch and listen somebody who is just slightly more advanced than you. If you know any small children who have a slightly older sister or brother you'll know what I'm talking about. This is one of the main advantages of pair programming.

Disadvantages? Could be that pretty soon, you know what they know and they know what you know. This shared vision and shared approach can be great, but if you don't have anybody in the team who's reading about new stuff, or questing for a guru, there's a risk that things can get stale.

Just Do It

Teach yourself. Don't read the manual. The world is full of self-taught writers, musicians, programmers and mathematicians. There are tremendous advantages to this approach. You don't know any better - so many great advances have been done because the people who were doing them didn't know that they weren't supposed to be able to do that. You can go at your own pace none of that feeling left behind or getting annoyed because you got it and others are still struggling. And you can follow your passion - you can do the things that you want to do. And there's an even more powerful advantage to this method because, when you do decide to use one of the other methods, learn from a guru, find a buddy, read a book, you'll be intimately acquainted with the problems and so really want to know the answers.

Paul McCartney - self-taught. (Photo courtesy of Slagheap)

Of course, there are some problems as well. Following your passion can also mean "avoiding the hard bits" and "avoiding the embarrassment of getting it wrong in public". I've written about this a bit here at "The Loneliness of the Self-Taught Programmer."

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