The struggle in learning new things

When I was going through my degree program I was having a hard time with the exams so I went to see an advisor to get some help. Through our conversations I realized that I was getting a lot of help along the way from people, the professor, and the internet. That help included seeing not only the answer, but the steps. I would then look at how the answer was derived. then I would type/write out the problem. The advisor metioned that this mode of ‘learning’ I was stuck in was the problem. In fact she said “you’re not learning anything” and you know, I wasn’t. I wasn’t learning because I was parroting what I was shown so I wasn’t trying to discover the path on my own. In essense, there was no struggle. I had fallen in to this trap where I just wanted to get the work done, get the grade and move on. The reason I had fallen into this trap was that I was in a hurry. I just wanted to make it to the end. That’s what makes sites like stack overflow and others so good and so bad.

After a bit of soul searching I realized she was right. I changed my habits and I refused to allow myself to receive too much help. Yes, you can get so much help that it is detrimental to your growth.

People like to be helpful and educate others I get that. Some people are super passionate about it. That’s a great trait, but there are a couple of downsides to this. One is that the learner believes that getting the answer and memorizing the answer is learning. It’s not. What if the conditions change? Then that answer is no longer accurate. The other is that teachers want others to succeed so much that they will literally take the struggle away from the person they’re teaching. Will the learner pass a test? Sure. Have they acquired hard experiences through failure and success in the struggle to learn? Nope.

A great example of this is what we learn in the IT Networking space. When you start out one of the first things someone may tell you to do is memorize the entire table of numbers of hosts/numbers of subnets. Why? Because it’s on a test. So you memorize it. Great, you get the answer right. Do you think you are now an expert on subnetting? No. Because you didn’t take the time to learn the fundamentals beneath subnetting. Do you want to be an expert on subnetting? I hope not.

I’ve been around networking as either an architect or an engineer for a long time. Do you think I have numbers of hosts/numbers of subnets memorized? Nope. Do I feel like someone else who does is better than me? Nope. Why? Because I have learned mechanisms to derive the numbers instead in a way that clicks in my brain not how someone else learned it.

Senior people in IT should absolutely pay it forward by teaching others if they want to do so. Be cognizant of the way you’re teaching. Don’t give people the easy button. If you write a blog post with instruction realize that your method may only work in your conditions. Your instructions should contain more than just the steps. It should contain content that invokes thought for the person reading it.

My advice to anyone learning something new whatever that is. Struggle with it first. If you’re stuck – flip the problem on its head. Come at it from a different angle. Leave the problem and come back to it. Then ask for guidance, but don’t cheat yourself. Don’t seek the answer through that guidance. Seek the knowledge to help you figure your new world out.

Published by Hank Yeomans

Principal Engineer in Cloud Security OCTO @ Cisco Systems - Enabler of business, network architectures. I'm into long walks on the beach, zero trust, networking infrastructures, and bacon.

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