Taking Learning into Your Own Hands
Source Tim Urban
I stood in front of a whiteboard. Hands shaking. Cheeks red. I panicked and my mind drew a blank.
I was in a sun-filled Google office to interview for a software engineer job.
I was asked to design a database for public web cameras around the globe. One can search the database to view live streams at scenic locations such as Time Square in New York City. Think EarthCam.
I successfully wrote pseudo-code to set up the database index. But when I was asked to estimate the number of streaming video cameras in the world to determine the search runtime, I got stuck. How could I possibly know? I couldn’t speak a word.
I was a straight-A student in college. I finished two majors in three years, maxing out the number of classes one could take during regular quarters, and working tirelessly in summer sessions. I had job interviews lined up and graduated from college before my 20th birthday.
My classmates were shocked when I didn’t get the Google offer.
Reflecting on the interview, I failed to demonstrate the self-knowledge and the skills to thrive in open discussions. It was never on the test.
I succeeded in college in a vacuum. I mastered the path that school designed for me, but I didn’t learn to think outside of the box. It’s the job of the institution to set up the learning path for incoming students. You can choose a path, but you can’t design them.
After working in the real world for 15 years, and actively reflecting on my learning process, I started to realize what was missing from my college education: the trust that I could make sound educational decisions for myself, the awareness that I could discover my path as I go, and the skill sets that allow me to pivot my course if I choose to.
If I could give a piece of advice to my younger self, I would take an active role in designing my learning experience instead of swearing by institutions.
Taking learning into your own hands is not easy, but it's more urgent than ever.
Find your path in the crowd
Back then, success is found by following a rigid path, building that golden resume, and racing to the endpoint. Ace the tests, get that job, make it to the top.
Now, the path to success is less defined. There has been a flood of changes, opportunities, and new territory in our work lives. Hackers in their late teens apply to the YCombinator instead of going to school. Online creators build personal brands which turn into businesses. Freelancers find work that allows location autonomy. There are many roads to Rome.
The pandemic has accelerated the change in how we view our jobs. In April 2021, the share of U.S. workers quitting their jobs was 2.7%, the highest level since 2000. People are seeing the world differently. Many are looking for a change.
We need a new mindset for our learning to adapt to this change. Leo Babauta, a coach on managing uncertainty, says:
“We learn on our own terms, at our own pace, with our own structure. We empower the kids to decide for themselves what they care about, what they want to learn.”
It’s in our interest to design our learning map.
How do you decide which learning path is the best for you? How do we know what we don’t know?
Discover with experiments
We can only detect the map of the field as we go through the motions. Instead of listing what to learn upfront, we experiment widely and pay attention to our obsessions.
I discovered my interests through a chain reaction of online courses. I first took an online writing course to become a better writer. Through this writing community, I discovered another course on personal knowledge management that inspired me to be an online creator. As I’m creating, I want to better visualize my building process, so now I’m learning how to shape mind maps using tools like Miro.
I didn’t know what I would learn next. Instead, I see the sequence of my interests emerge through a series of experiments.
Tuning into our emotions helps reveal our path. Mathematician Steven Strogatz recounted the moment he discovered his interest in numbers and patterns. During a high school class experiment, he timed a swinging pendulum, with increasing arm lengths, and dotted its period times on a graph. As a parabolic curve emerged, he wrote, “an enveloping sensation of wonder and fear came over me in that moment of revelation. I became aware of a hidden but beautiful world that can be seen only through mathematics. It was a moment from which I have never really recovered.” This powerful feeling propelled him into his life-long research in chaos theory.
We might need to pivot our path as we do more experiments. We all know a friend or two who switched majors mid-way in college and needed to stay an extra year to complete course requirements. There was a financial incentive to go down the learning path we started. There was no room for inefficiency.
How do you stay flexible but also avoid wasting time and money while learning?
Invest in transferable skills
Choosing a major in college gives us specialized skills for a defined path. We spend hours on niche academic subjects we rarely use. We memorize facts that we can look up in reference.
We have a bigger return on investment to learn skills that work along many paths. A utility knife beats a specialty knife for an undefined task. Understanding simple statistics beats memorizing the first 50 digits of pi. Communication skills are more useful than perfect spelling. Skills such as critical thinking and self-learning allow us flexibility. They make us attractive candidates for work.
There is a good chance that you can learn the specialized skills on the job. Incoming analysts at Goldman Sachs go through summer programs where they learn financial models from the scratch. The bank trains the recruits, some with History majors in college, with the technical skills to be star performers. But in job interviews, employers focus on one’s general skills, such as how quickly candidates learn a new subject.
Pivoting your path becomes easier when you learn transferable skills. Note how venture capitalists choose to invest in start-ups. It’s no secret that founders are the most important asset in angel investments. Start-ups operate in extreme uncertainty. Business models pivot regularly. But the raw qualities of the founder, including his or her drive, business intuition, and interpersonal skills, carry on. These transferable attributes are what the financiers invest in.
Move forward without a master plan
I wish someone could have told me this before my failed Google interview: I was not asked to give a specific answer. All I needed to show was that I had a clear thought process and I made reasonable assumptions. That attitude is how I design my learning path now. Instead of looking for the one correct path, I trust that the best path for my learning will emerge from consistent actions and active reflections. Like Steve Jobs said, you can't connect the dots looking forward; so you’ll have to trust the dots will somehow connect in the future.
And they will.