I love working for startups. We get to solve meaningful problems with cool technology, but most importantly we get amazing opportunities to learn. Constant learning is a key component of creating self-actualising flow states, and we’re lucky that learning is more accessible now than it ever has been in human history.
There are lots of reasons to learn new things: ad hoc learning on-the-job, figuring out a tool we know we'll need to use in an upcoming project, or something we need to learn to get a promotion. Maybe it’s a young & unproven technology we’re taking a bet on in the hope that it will take off and we'll be there to call first dibs on the jobs that it spawns (hello, Meteor).
These are all great reasons but my favourite jusitification for learning something—and the one that's influenced most of my learning decisions—is exploring my own naïve fascinations.
One of the core traits of a designer is insatiable curiosity. Curiosity into the lives of our users, into the context our work will be presented and into the processes we use to realise it.
Over the past few years I’ve morphed from a Helvetica-obsessed, Müller-Brockmann-worshipping graphic designer into an awkward mix of a interaction designer & full-stack developer. A generalist, I guess. I love the work I do now, but it was never a concious decision—I wasn't walking to a typography class one morning and suddenly overcome with the urge to worry about Test Driven Development—rather what I do now is the result of a series of daydreams, slacking-off, and finding myself interested in things other than what I was doing at the time.
Procrastinating towards a niche
“The work you do while you procrastinate is probably the work you should be doing for the rest of your life”
I really like the ethos of Jessica Hische’s procrastiworking. By acting on the things that excite us but aren’t being fulfilled by our 9–5 jobs we can recalibrate until we’re doing exactly the kind of work we really want to do. With an eclectic range of interests we can build up a much more exciting model of who we become than we could by sticking to narrowly defined job descriptions and traditional career progressions.
“You do not merely want to be considered just the best of the best. You want to be considered the only ones who do what you do”
I was never a huge Grateful Dead fan but that quote always resonated with me. Thanks Jerry!
Along the way, the topics I was interested in learning about weren't immediately relevant to the work I was doing at the time and I had several teachers & Creative Directors tell me that programming was wasting my time and distracting from improving as a designer. I often worried that learning new things wouldn’t matter if I forgot how to design.
One of my design heroes is Rasmus Andersson. I always knew of him as the virtuoso designer of Spotify and other services, but I had a holyshit moment when I saw his open source hacks & projects on GitHub. Rasmus writing functional programming languages & virtual machines whilst still retaining his skills as an amazing designer validated my increasing interest in proper software craftsmanship.
The formative hours I spent learning Ruby or trying to get a high-level understanding of the the savant Clojure algorithms Brad & Aria were writing when I worked at Prismatic were legitimised. Rather than a distraction from graphic design, software engineering became a manifestion of my insatiable curiosity in the way things worked. Rather than watering down my design skills, my curiosities were enriching them.
There are a couple of loose guidelines I have in place to guide my learning. I’m not too fond of rules but I like having some way of staying vaguely on track :)
Learn something new everyday
Looking back on jobs I haven’t enjoyed it tends to be when I’m not learning anything. It doesn't have to be a huge thing—I'm not learning new programming languages every day!—but I try to learn something (whether it’s a new CSS trick or a guitar riff). Keeps me sane.
Learning even when it scares me
If a new topic doesn’t make sense straight away I sometimes feel it threatening my sense of self. Sometimes I like to trick myself into thinking the old way is good enough, but I always push through that barrier. As a curious person the reward of getting to the ‘aha!’ is always greater than the ego-saving comfort of giving up.
Learning things I don't have a direct use for
On that last point, I find myself wanting to just ‘get the gist’ of things I will probably never use again. As an example, I host all my of apps on Heroku. I’ve never enjoyed sysadmin work, but Heroku smooths over all the gory details for me. Makes things easy & painless. That said, I had this voice in the back of my head for many months wishing I knew how servers work. I’ll never have to set them up myself, but I just can’t bear to not have a high-level understanding of how things work.
Solution? I spent a weekend getting to grips with this technical skeleton in my closet and set up a Linux server from scratch. Nagging voice in my head: gone; zen: returned; achievement: unlocked. I can now happily ignore the subject again, but with the satisfaction of knowing I understand it.
“I can’t do that” vs. “I can’t do that yet”
It’s a cliché now, but I think this mindset is what Stewart Brand (and then Steve Jobs) meant by “stay hungry, stay foolish”. Keeping yourself in a constant cycle of learning and never getting complacent with your skills is the only way we can improve.
My tip for investing in yourself? Follow your instincts.
This essay is part of a collaborative blogging experiment to answer the question, “how do you invest in yourself?”
You can read the other great posts on this topic over at QuestionClub.