Take a Regular Learning Vacation

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For the past three months, I’ve focused on one thing – learning JavaScript. I put aside all freelance work and committed to at least 30 minutes per day. I called it my “learning vacation”. I might have started at (just above) ground zero knowledge-wise, but by golly, I was going to make some progress.

How did I do? I completed the Treehouse Front End Web Development course, which covered JavaScript and jQuery. I hacked away on a GitHub project and managed to get everything working (still some improvements I want to make). I’m not ready to lead a development team, but I have a better idea of how JavaScript works and can fumble my way around a project.

There were some frustrating nights and mornings spent staring at a computer screen hoping an answer would pop out at me. I read more StackOverflow threads than I would care to admit, and my Google searches grew more and more desperate. I wanted to quit more than a handful of times.

Despite all the frustration and moments of despair, I loved every minute of it (in a sort of masochistic way). It had been awhile since I pushed myself that hard to learn something new and persevere through difficulty. In fact, I’m hoping to take a regular break every so often to focus on learning something new. I think you should too.

Learning is a scary process. You’re admitting that there’s something you don’t know. You’re venturing outside of your comfort zone, and unpleasant emotions are bound to appear. One emotion that I was expecting and looking forward to? Humility.

Far too often, we get stuck in a rut working on what we already know. We’re comfortable working within certain boundaries. We understand our subject matter. We can speak somewhat authoritatively on the topic. We feel important and knowledgeable. Unfortunately, when we’re comfortable, we often stop pushing ourselves. We settle rather than reach higher.

Diving into an area you know nothing about is a humbling experience. You’re immediately forced to recalibrate your confidence. You’re the beginner, not the expert. This has two effects. First, as a beginner, you ignore accepted limitations and attack new angles of problem solving. Second, you learn what it’s like to be “new” at something again. The former will carryover into other areas of your work making you a better problem solver. The latter will allow you to sympathize with newbies. You’ve been in their shoes now. You get it.

One of my biggest fears going into this project was the fear of failure. What if I spent all this time trying to learn only to fall flat on my face? As a result, I held back far more than I should have. My coding practice was all done on the safety of my own computer, not on GitHub where others could watch. I avoided talking about it too much for fear that I would over-promise and under-deliver. I put more emphasis on the outcome rather than the process.

The benefit of learning something new doesn’t come from mastering the skill itself; it comes from the process. How do you react when you’re frustrated? Are you capable of finding answers on your own? Can you follow through on a goal even when the path seems fraught with difficulty?

What you choose to learn doesn’t matter. Just pick something you’re unfamiliar with yet curious about. Find the easiest point of entry and start stumbling forward. Fail publicly rather than privately. Share what you’re learning with others and celebrate small victories along the way. Where you end up doesn’t matter; how much you grow along the way does.

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