The Shape of Modern Learning

Becoming an expert is difficult. But it is easy to make a meaningful start.

Let’s face it, becoming an expert is not easy. In fact, no single human ever can — because we keep pushing the frontiers of skill and knowledge farther and farther. However, it is definitely possible to gain enough expertise rapidly so you get to enjoy pushing the frontier forward, rather than reluctantly chase after it, or worse — give up.

A rough schematic of the learning curve. Y-axis is expertise level (or one’s percentile among experts). Not to scale, of course!
For the creative novice, the important feature of a learning curve is this — when you are at 90%, the frontier is not uniformly 10% away.

Based on my experience, 6 weeks of intense and well-directed work can be sufficient for anyone reading this to get 90% of the way — even in a cutting edge field. Getting to 95% could take anywhere from 6 months to 6 years, depending on the area. And you could happily spend the rest of your life chasing the remaining 4%. This is, of course, widely known as the learning curve. But when most people talk about the learning curve, the focus is on the plateau and how to keep yourself motivated and learning as you hit “the wall”.

However, for a novice in any creative field, the most important feature of a learning curve is this — when you are at 90%, the frontier is not uniformly 10% away! There are enough gaps is most fields that even from here, you can start picking up interesting problems to solve. Which in turn improves your expertise and simultaneously makes you one of the creators of the frontier.

Learning new skills quickly and effectively is more important than ever, with our jobs and roles changing much more frequently. Here are a three quick tips (and some pitfalls to avoid) for learning rapidly that I’ve found useful over the past decade. This is just a brief list with links to more detailed resources at the bottom. Please chime in to let me know what has worked for you!

1. Find great teachers:

There are a couple of easy traps to get into here, especially online —

  1. People who appear to be experts aren’t always. They may only be experts in appearing to be experts — i.e. baseless self promoters.
  2. People who are great at doing may not necessarily be great at teaching.

MOOCs are a therefore a great starting point that helps you avoid these traps. Most teachers on MOOCs are actual experts in their field and great teachers. If you want to get into learning Machine Learning, who better than Andrew Ng or Sebastian Thrun to get you started?

(Personally, I have found Berkshire Hathaway Shareholder Letters a great way of learning about investing, business, and life. Highly recommended.)

2. Use a real-world project to hone your skills:

Some people can learn for the sake of learning, but I’ve always found it a lot easier to keep myself motivated (and gauge my progress honestly) when I’m learning while working on a project with defined goals. The project doesn’t have to be very serious — just try and have fun and let the project evolve with your skills.

3. Find “classmates”, but avoid pointless debates:

Forums and articles in your area of interest by other novices are a great way of finding people to learn with, but definitely resist the “Someone is Wrong on the Internet” syndrome — there is nothing to be gained there.

That is all!

Here are a few other useful resources—