Everyday, I’m learning something new. I have a job where I’m using my previously acquired skills and knowledge to tackle projects that I’ve never done before — a challenge that most of us have encountered at some point in our careers. This means that I frequently have to transfer my previous learning to new and unknown situations. I also work on a lot of projects that require “fresh eyes” every time; there isn’t always a template or set of guidelines that I can rely on, so I’m learning as I go.

But I also just like to learn new things. I like to say that “I learn like it’s my job” because this is how I signal that I take learning seriously. More specifically, I mean that:

  • I identify new things that I want to learn on a regular basis
  • I learn intentionally and purposefully by planning learning experiences for myself
  • I respect the learning process and don’t rush through the act of learning something new
  • I consider learning to be a professional obligation
  • I hold myself accountable for learning new things

Depending on where I am in the process of learning something new, learning can look different each day. That said, I tend to follow a similar process when I begin to learn a new skill, topic or process:

  1. I reflect on what I know and what I don’t.

I start by thinking about whether there is anything that I already know that might help me learn this new thing. What are the skills and knowledge that I already have that I can apply to this new learning experience?

2. I plan what I can do to learn the new skill, topic or process.

I take some time to consider what kind of time I have to devote to learning this new thing and what I really hope to get out of it. In what situations will I need to use the skill or knowledge that I’m learning? What kinds of resources are available to help me learn? What kinds of experiences can I look for to help me learn this new thing?

3. I seek out mentors to help me learn.

I think about who I know that already knows this thing I want to learn. Or maybe I know someone who just knows one crucial part of it. I’m not shy about asking for help. People like to share their knowledge and there’s nothing wrong with admitting you don’t know something or want to learn more.

4. I gather the resources I need to help me learn.

I start to collect books, articles, podcast episodes, blog posts, examples and other resources that will help me to learn more about the skill, topic or process that I’ve chosen. I set up times to meet with the mentors I identified in the previous step. I start to schedule out milestones for processing all of the resources that I’m gathering.

5. I read enough to develop a basic literacy in the skill, topic or process.

In order to ask the right questions and gauge my own learning, I need to have the right language and basic understanding of what I’m trying to learn. Having a basic literacy also helps me to measure how far I’ve come with learning something new and to make sure that I’ve included the appropriate resources in my learning plan, both in terms of breadth and depth.

6. I talk about the skill, topic or process I’m learning.

I get over the fact that I might look stupid or misspeak about the new skill, topic or process that I’m working on learning. I’d rather be corrected over a mistake at this stage than later on when I’m using what I’ve learned in a high-stakes environment.

7. I ask questions about the new skill, topic or process.

By asking questions, I start to have a better picture of the areas where I feel more confidence and the areas where I’m still not sure about my knowledge or abilities. I use the baseline literacy that I’ve developed to ask more and more detailed questions of the mentors I previously identified.

8. I begin to practice the skill, topic or process that I’ve been learning in low-stakes environments.

I seek out ways to practice that can’t do any harm to my own or others’ projects. Practicing, making mistakes, learning from those mistakes, and trying again is one of the ways that I learn best, but I’d prefer to not irreparably harm anything along the way. I view this stage of practicing as a form of play. If I’m not having a little fun with what I’m learning, it usually means I don’t have the confidence to move forward and I return to steps 5, 6, and 7.

9. I begin to use the skill, topic or process that I have learned about in higher-stakes environments.

Once I’ve gotten some practice, I begin to implement the skill, topic or process in places where mistakes will have consequences. I’m still learning during this time and I’m paying even more attention to ensure that mistakes are mitigated as much as possible. Whereas previously I might have focused on big-picture learning, this is when I really get into the details.

10. I reflect on what I’ve learned about the skills, topic or process and decide whether I need to learn more or whether I can move on to a new learning experience.

Usually I know that a learning process is nearing its natural end when someone who witnesses me implementing the skill, topic or process recognizes me as an expert by complimenting me on it. This means that I don’t choose the end of the process myself, but wait for a form of external affirmation to ensure that I’m not overly confident in my abilities. Once this occurs, I begin to reflect on the learning experience and think about how long it took to get me to this final stage and all of the steps along the way that worked (or didn’t) to help me learn. I also think about what I will need to do to move what I’m learning from an active learning process to a maintenance mode.

Being intentional about our learning experiences can not only help us get the most of out them, but can also ensure that we are continually learning about how we learn best.

To think on:

  • Have you ever thought about the steps that you take when you learn something new? Try writing your steps down to see what you can learn about your own process.
  • What kinds of things work well for you when you’re learning something new? What kinds of things become obstacles to your learning?

Additional recommended reading: How to Fight Through Intellectual Discomfort by Carson Tate writing at 99U