The Messiness Of Learning

A rarely talked about truth is how the act of learning is really messy.  

Whenever I learn a new skill I always go back to how I learned to play the guitar.  Probably because this was the first skill I truly learned by myself; no books, no teachers.  Just listening to loads of music and doodling away at the guitar.

There are a lot of theories floating around* regarding the best way to learn an instrument.  Some say that you should learn to play easy pieces first and then work your way up to harder pieces of music in a gradual way.   Some say you should learn music theory even before you know what sounds the theory is trying to describe.

Others say “jump right in”!  Push yourself to the max every day to get better technical proficiency and start performing with super experienced musicians to up your game.

It’s the same tension in medicine.  Universities teach you in a gradual manner, building on knowledge they’ve already taught you in a systematic way.  However, is this really a better way of learning than being thrown into a 12 hour night shift as the only doctor covering 300 patients?  I for one probably learned more clinical medicine in my first two months as a doctor on a ward than I did in my last two years of medical school combined.

And how about other fields such as computer programming?  You could sit through a bunch of coding tutorials, read books on the subject, or get a degree.  But anyone that’s coded will tell you that the best way to learn is to literally hack away until you’ve built what you wanted to build.  And I believe that every great programmer has learnt the same way:  They write some code, see what happens when they run the code, adjust the code, run again and repeat until they’ve figured out how to programme.

So what’s the best way to learn?  Jumping right in, or taking it slow?

The fact is that it is really messy learning a new skill.

The knowledge you get from deep reading and gradual progression is important.  But it’s just as important to do something in the real world for yourself and “jumping right in”.

The problem is that too often people get too used to either gradually getting better at things, which often leads to stagnation and giving up.  Or people keep jumping in when they should actually pull out for a moment and take some time to do some deep reading / learning and take things more gradually for a while.

It’s a messy process, but that’s the way it is.

* Pedagogy / Andragogy

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