The Learner’s Code

(This article is the first in a series of posts about continuous learning and skill acquisition.)

“He who works with his hands is a laborer.
He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman.
He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.”
― Francis of Assisi

I was having coffee (well, a caramel macchiato if you’re going to press me on it) recently and I overheard these two guys having a debate over comic book art. Listening to them wax poetic about style and color got me thinking about mastery, old school Kung-Fu flicks, and how much of those movies were focused on the student trying learn the skills necessary to defeat his nemesis. This dovetailed into thoughts on skill acquisition and my ongoing, multi-year, Year of Code.

My Year of Code triggered a lot of research into learning how to learn (more on that in upcoming posts), but as I work to reconcile learning to learn and Kung-Fu apprenticeships it occurred to me that when one sets off for adventure into unknown playground it’s always good to have ground rules or principles to guide you- least you end up with a bloody nose or the guy that’s never picked for team play, but I digress.

Here’s my thinking: all great movements or philosophies can usually be distilled down to a few guiding principles or guidance and continuous learning (movement?) should be no different.  (Disclaimer: I’ve worked hard on this till the wee hours of the morning so if I missed a few “codes” drop me a line in the comments). I think it makes sense to establish some principles before we get too far along so here we go: The Learner’s Code.

Keep A 4-year Old’s Mindset

  1. The Power of Why, Why, Why – The super cool thing about kids is that they come from an honest, secure place of not knowing, but they are really not okay with staying in that place. They ask questions again and again in different ways, often to the visible dismay of others, but at the end of the day they’ve learned something new. So fuck it: ask questions and stay curious.
  2. The Power of Play Doh – Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. Studies show that we learn and retain information better via multi-sensory inputs (with touch and sight being stronger connectors than sound) but let’s be honest: getting dirty is just more fun. Everything can’t be academic and theoretical and most theories are shit in without real-world application. Get in there and do something.
  3. Know That It Could All Change Tomorrow– Kids will see the same scenario two days in a row and ask the same set questions in response. Part of it may be a test to see if your full of shit. Part of it may be to test the theory of what they’ve learned to see if it’s universally applicable or to identify any missed variables that make today’s scenario different from yesterday’s. This is a powerful tool: human beings are somewhat paradoxical in their desire to focus on the “fixed and unchanging” in an ever-changing dynamic universe. Sure there may be some static universal facts, this is necessary to create some level of predictability (read: usefulness) in your mental models, but be careful that your own predilections aren’t creating “local universals”- everything could be different tomorrow and you should be ready to learn anew.
  4. Teach Others – Kids are always passing what they’ve learned off to friends, families, other kids, and random passersby. That’s an awesome trait: it reinforces what you’ve learned and contributes to the greater good. It also puts what you’ve learned through the samurai school of public criticism and consequently makes us better- nothing sharpens our intellectual swords like a ninja star of counter-point landing square in your forehead. Back to the drawing board, bitch.
  5. Fearless Humility – Carol Dweck, Ph. D talks a lot about the importance in one’s mindset and its impact on one’s life and worldview: namely a person with a fixed mindset will believe that the world and their actions in it aren’t relevant because things are what they are (determinism taken to the extreme), whereas a person with a growth mindset believes that their lives, personal qualities, and actions (and consequently their place in the world) have an impact. The reason this is relevant to the 4-year old mindset is that at this age they haven’t learned to be afraid, insecure, nor have they conjured up some fixed view of how everything works. That allows you to walk into any situation with a genuine open mind and just enough of personal confidence to not be a dick.

Accept That No Path Ends, They Only Connect To Other Paths

  1. Everything You Learn Will Lead You Down At Least Three New Paths – All epistemological comments about the limits of human knowledge and the “boundlessness” of the universe aside, just know that there’s a lot of things to learn and there always will be. Continuous learning is a journey and you’re your own Indiana Jones, but unless you’re reading comic books any new subject will need new foundational knowledge and a prerequisite understanding of something else. Your brain is awesome at making connections between seemingly disparate things, but there will be instances where your known fundamentals aren’t enough to get you going. Get comfortable with that.
  2. At Least One Of Those Unknown Paths Will Have To be Crossed – I get that this is a corollary of the pervious code, but its worth stating. You won’t be able to crawl down every rabbit hole you find on your journey: it’s just not practical and maybe be counter productive to your deliverable commitment (see below). The point here is that experience and preferences will help you make better rabbit hole decision (rabbit hole decision algorithms? hmm….new path started.)
  3. Crisscrossing Paths Are The Okay – Our brains are civil engineers building biological networks (neural networks) between two points (ideas, concepts, memories, etc.). Let the engineers work, the more points you can add to the network the better- it’s how we learn and where creativity comes from.

Own The Gaps

  1. You’ll Never Be Able To Learn Everything – That’s the point; get over yourself.
  2. Intellectual Boundaries are Schrödinger’s Cat. – I know it’s a pretty obscure reference (new path?) but the point’s the same: the limits of our understanding both exist and don’t exist based on our recognition of that reality. Our acceptance of boundaries are what makes them complete. How does that relate in practical terms? The only separation between subjects, ideas, etc. are in our heads because we created them. There’s no proof that understanding how to calculate the rotational motion of a roller skate isn’t related to the growth of mildew on the Statue of Liberty- you make the connections and disconnections so own it.
  3. Knowing The Gaps Is A Superpower – Recognizing the gaps in your understanding of anything is a hidden mutant superpower. Most people presume to know more than they do about almost everything. Sometimes that arrogance results in terrible consequences (see every internet fail video ever) and the studies around this particular human failing are always fun to read.

Commit To A Deliverable

  1. Learning For The Sake of Learning Is Pretty Useless – No one’s taking score and there’s no Grammy Awards for nerds. Do it for something: you decide what, but make a decision and make it intentional. It matters.
  2. Have A Goal Or Endgame Mind – Have a deliverable of some type, something tangible or measurable: a certification, a finished app or related side project- even if it’s a blog post to help others understand what you just learned, there should always be an output of some sort.
  3. Learning Is A System – It has inputs, processes, and outputs (more on that in future posts) but you should be mindful of that when embarking down any new paths.

Stay Gold, Pony Boy

  1. Two things here: recognize that ignorance is evil (no matter what the Stupids believe) and that adherence to this code will effectively be a contribution to mankind as a whole (lofty statement, but whatever, let me be great).
  2. This  “philosophical” treatise would be incomplete without a random reference to a scene to the movie The Outsiders for some reason. At least in my head it wouldn’t. Stay gold.




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