Learning How to Learn

I helped a friend’s daughter with her high school algebra a few days ago. It’s amazing how much one can forget over 20 years, but with help from her textbook, I managed to remember enough to be helpful.

I helped a friend’s daughter with her high school algebra a few days ago. It’s amazing how much one can forget over 20 years, but with help from her textbook, I managed to remember enough to be helpful. It was neat watching the cognitive light bulbs turn on in her head and in mine. I think she will do fine on her upcoming math test.

This wonderful episode made me think about learning how to learn. Even though it’s a hot topic with me, I’ve never closely examined the ability of learning how to learn. If I could define it, then I could measure it, and then I could make smart hiring decisions based on something more reliable than a gut feel.

That’s great for me, but why should anyone else care? Like it or not, the IT industry is a rapidly changing environment. The challenge for all of us is to stay abreast or even a little ahead of the evolving technology landscape. This means we must learn how to learn. We need to quickly absorb knowledge, apply it and then integrate it into a growing skill base.

My first conscious exercise for learning how to learn occurred in mid 1993, when I wanted to test out of a one-credit business statistics course to finish my MBA degree. The problem was, I didn’t remember any of the material from a similar college course I took in 1976. The MBA folks provided study guides for anyone who wanted to test out of the course, so I dug out my old, musty, college statistics book, checked out a pile of statistics books from the local library and began studying. I holed up in my bedroom for most of a week, went through the books, and methodically worked the problems in the back of each chapter. I studied statistics so much, my brain felt like mush after four days. But I passed the test and didn’t need to take the class. A few-days investment saved half my summer and several hundred dollars.

In mid-1994, when I started doing Windows NT and PC setup work, I found my DEC OpenVMS skill base was becoming unpopular. I bought a couple of PCs and a bunch of books, studied like mad, and learned about DOS, Windows and PC technology. If I hadn’t done that, I would probably have a real job by now.

I’ve seen others teach themselves, too. One of our consultants learned about Cisco routers, DNS, and firewalls from scratch. I can count on him to pick up any new technology I throw at him in a few days. I’ve even seen non-technical people study and quickly become proficient with computer technology.

I’ve also seen failures. I’ve seen talented people acquire a knowledge base, only to become arrogant and lazy. While others just lack the effort to gain an initial knowledge base.

The formula to rapid learning success is simple, but not easy. Come up with a learning goal, a reward that’s worth the effort, and a way to assess progress. Acquire some low cost tools to learn the subject matter, such as books or computers, and study like mad for a few days. Continue to honestly assess yourself until you know the subject matter, then collect your reward. It’s hard work and it never ends.

Here’s the real reason why this is so important: Maybe you have a cushy, secure job managing a Windows NT network and you think it will be that way forever. Maybe you’re not old enough to remember the days before Microsoft ruled the world. Maybe you’re a bit cocky now because you know more about your network than anyone else in your company and you don’t want to learn any more.

Just remember the day you stop learning is the day you become worthless to yourself and your company. The world keeps changing. Pick up something worthwhile, study it, and come up with nifty applications to improve your company. If you don’t, somebody else will. --Greg Scott, Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), is president of Scott Consulting Corp. (Eagan, Minn.). Contact him at gregscott@scottconsulting.com.