Learning never ends

Set in the near-past, the story starts with an overly motivated young man, who had just finished his university degree.

I was part of a Formula Student Team — building an electrical race car year after year — for a long time and naively assumed that this, combined with my electrical engineering degree, would be enough experience to start and lead my own tech startup.

It wasn’t, but sorry to spoil it, that’s not what this story is about. I won’t bore you with the details, but my Co-Founder still pushes the idea forward, and you can find more under http://www.evomo.de.

The story is however about how I made learning work for me.

Throughout my university degree and while hard-at-work on the start-up, i was a doer. Instead of staring aimlessly at a textbook, I would do exercises on the problem or write the code for our technology. But i did so while not actively thinking about the big picture. I just solved the math equations and or problems of theoretical communication theory which appeared. I never really thought about what the purpose was, or how I could look at it in the context of something different, i.e. real world physics. The only exceptions have been my tasks in the formula student or in my thesis papers. In some occasions i learned and transferred a lot into my long term memory, in others i didn’t. But i never really thought about how to store the learnings in the most efficient way.

So i actually missed building chunks of important knowledge.

The same happened while working on the technology of my startup. I was in the passenger seat of my own urge to do something because i believed that hard work will be the key to success. I don't know exactly when this changed, but over the past 6-months, my thinking has changed, and I focus on strategy i call smart work when i stumbled across an internet guru by the name of Cal Newport (http://calnewport.com/).

So I knew that I wanted to

a) change my working and learning habits; and

b) plan my career.

This is where the title of the next chapter comes into play.

So good they can’t ignore you

The book follows the journey of Cal Newport. He creates four rules for helping himself make the best possible decisions for his career.

One important part is that passion alone won’t result in a happy and fulfilling work life — don’t concentrate on what the world can offer you. That would be a never ending search.

Instead, he proposes to adapt to the craftsman mindset, to focus relentlessly on the skills that you can offer the world and build on them. This will have two effects:

  1. When you are good at something, you will enjoy doing it
  2. You will only build the necessary skills, which will help you gain more control over your (work)life.

Ultimately these skills can help you identify what you as a person, are passionate about and ideally, what is needed to be equipped with the right skillset to follow it.

How does this reflect onto my own life?

My long-term goal is to work in the area of machine learning (ML) and Virtual Realtiy (VR) / Augmented Reality (AR).

The problem is that the skills I have to offer are not deeply related to either. I have experience in applying machine learning from an engineering point of view but not to the extent I dreamt about while studying.

Furthermore, before applying the guidelines from this book, my skillset contained knowledge about more disjointed topics, including: -

  • Monolithic Backend architectures
  • Mobile applications (iOS)
  • Machine learning (regression modelling, time analysis)
  • … and what was left from my engineering degree.

Based on the teachings of the introduced books, Iwill further deepen my skillset in building backend architectures and working on small data science/machine learning problems. Over time the combination of backend, mobile applications and machine learning skills will be a good foundation for further opportunities. This will hopefully lead towards more senior and lead positions which will again lead to more opportunities.

While mastering those skills and learning new ones on the way, I will be able to bring myself closer to the long-term goal, where i can apply my knowledge in projects related to VR/AR.

The basic principle is not to start from the beginning in a job of your passion (and therefore giving up a lot of traits — high salary and control over your workstyle) but using the skills you already have to build a bridge to your dream/mission.

Cal emphasised how important deliberate practice is to enhance your skills. On a basic level, it means that you should take your time to work on challenges and hard problems in order to learn something new every week. The following book of Cal will support you in doing so.

Deep Work

Did you ever have problems focusing while your colleagues are chatting, your phone is buzzing or your hand is having the time of his life scouring through funny cat videos on the internet? Hi there! You’re not alone.

Deep Work is a second book from Cal, where he describes why focusing without distraction benefits your learning ability and your productivity. His aim is to help you to overcome your distractins.

This is based on simple rules:

  1. Work deeply
  2. Embrace Boredom
  3. Quit Social Media
  4. and Drain the Shallows.

(1) Work deeply will help you to use your limited time in the day for higher productive output. But more importantly uninterrupted concentration on a specific topic helps your brain to build solid neural links to persist the knowledge in your long term memory.

One of the most important key learnings of the first rule is that your will power is restricted. That means it will drain over the day while you fight distractions in your mission to work deeply. Therefore, try to avoid any distractions in the first place, which will be highlighted in the second rule:

(2) Embracing boredom describes a simple but efficient process: Don’t take breaks from distractions or procrastination. Instead, give yourself time to relax and take part in tasks not directly related to the problem you are trying to solve. Combined with the strategy to avoid distraction you can constrain your daily active YouTube time (or internet media consumption in general) to a specific time block per day.

(3) Quit Social Media. This one is easy. Don’t use tools which are not contributing to 80% of your success in your goals — both work and personal. Is it really necessary to use Instagram to increase your reach (does it really help to promote your blog?) or to use facebook to stay in contact with friends while your communication with the most important people in your life is already done via iMessages?

(4) Drain the Shallows. The last point is implicitly connected to willpower. Try to plan every minute of your day and avoid as much shallow work as possible. Sure, your job might include necessary shallow work but you can plan time blocks where it will occur. Be aware of your available time in your day and manage relaxation, shallow and deep work accordingly. This will help you to avoid procrastination.

I try to include those rules every day into my work and personal time. I started by defining the goals i want to achieve in the mid, and long term future, i.e.

Mid-term: Dive into the topic of machine learning and its applications.

Long-term: Completely understand and develop fully immersive virtual reality experiences.

In this way, I try to adopt the Craftmanship Mindset, as mentioned earlier, to master specific skills (in my case something like backend development, product driven machine learning applications and so on).

To do so I update my 6 week plan with goals and key tasks. This helps to learn new topics while still managing your normal workload. I include a daily planing as well.

By that you artificially constrain the available time different tasks. This has two beneficial effects: You have a deadline to focus on (this avoids procrastination) and You get enough variety in your daily routine, so your unconscious mind can work on the hard problems.

When it comes to deep work, luckily, I’m used to it from my coding background. But for tasks i’m not used to, I try to force deep work with the time structure strategy (i.e working straight for 1h) and by focusing on the process instead of the accomplishment of the tasks.

A mind for numbers

The last book in my recent reading series is about learning. After graduating from an university, you might argue: Shouldn’t you already know to do that? Probably. But I didn’t!

In my school time, I never even considered to firstly learn how to learn. If I had, it would’ve made my life a hell of a lot easier. Instead, I relied on the talent i had with everything math related and continued to do so while i studied electrical engineering. Therefore my strategy for learning was mainly the following:

I consumed the subject in the two/three weeks prior to the exam and forgot it directly afterwards. Eventually i had a hard time remembering a lot of the content of my seminars because of my missing comprehension of how to learn.

I don’t know exactly how, but while finishing Deep Work, I discovered this wonderful book. It helps you understand how your mind works and how you can use this knowledge to your own advantage.

Everything starts and ends with your own motivation. Why do you learn? It is important to be aware why you endure all this (deliberate) learning in the end. One interesting way of helping yourself to stay motivated is mental contrasting.

You imagine yourself in a distant future (3, 5, 10 years — doesn’t matter) and what you achieved until there (materially, personally and professionally). This will help you to plan what you need to learn to achieve your goals.

A second important aspect of learning is the way our brain works. In a really simple way it has two modes: the focus and diffuse mode. In the focus mode, you think through the problem you want to solve actively. Like calculating a new number out of two. And the diffuse mode is your unconscious way of thinking. In this state your mind wanders around in search for a solution for your problem. You might remember those moments in the shower or the bus/train where a thought or solution pops into your mind for a problem you thought of hours ago.

It is necessary to understand that you need both modes to deeply understand and store the memory in your long term memory. My old way of learning worked to achieve short term rewards (like passing an exam) but wasn’t helpful to persist the knowledge. For this goal persistence and regular exercising is key.

In my day to day use Ichanged my learning strategy to the following:

  1. I work through the content (a book or a challenge) and summarize it accordingly
  2. I create little quizzes from the summary and put it on flash cards
  3. I use the spaced repetition technique to recall the content over long periods of time to really persist the knowledge

And there is one another important learning from that book. If you ever get frustrated with your work or the problem you try to solve, just take a step back and do something else. Your diffuse mode will help you to solve it in the mean time…

Conclusion

I can recommend the books to everyone who is interested in planning his future according to specific goals and dreams. It brought to my mind how I can structure my career and that you can actively put yourself in a position to get more control and happiness in your professional and personal life.

It is never to late to actually learn how to learn.