I’ve recently taken a bit of interest in eating healthy. To get started I was searching for “the best book on nutrition” when suddenly I realised that I had fallen into that same old clichéd trap.
This is one of the most common practices when people are getting started with a new skill or a new body of knowledge. You hunt for the best book, the best blog post, the best video, the best tutorial, the best online class before you begin. This method is very common but extremely flawed.
When you start to learn a new language, you don’t necessarily start with the dictionary, so why do it this way for everything else? This process follows the school system. Before giving exams or getting into practicals children are taught a lot of structured theory. But if you see how kids learn to speak or walk, they do it devoid of any books of curriculum. They imitate, take a step of two, fall down, make mistakes, and press on. Kids learn through thrills and pleasure, and it’s time we adults learn to do the same as well.
I believe that it doesn’t matter where you begin, as long as you put things into practice sooner than later. Before starting my first company, I was under the impression that I’ll have to read all the popular startup books before getting any real work done. I devoured all the books I could find. Most of them were good, with practical advice, but none of them, none of them came close to doing real work.
Watching others talk and walk doesn’t make an infant learn to walk and talk. Reading about cricket doesn’t make a kid learn to play. Learning happens when we follow our curiosity. And curiosity usually follows a similar path: pick something, learn a bit about it, then try some, fail some, get stuck, and go back to the source. Then try some more, fail some more, get stuck, and then go back to the source once more. This cycle continues.
If your curiosity is short-lived then even the world’s most structured course will not be able to help you. On the other hand, if you follow your curiosity, then learning a few rough ideas from a okayish blog post is enough to give you a head start.
Back in college, a professor of mine used to say, “A book starts to become interesting in the middle. Always start a book from the middle, never at the start. This way, you’ll only be reading the interesting things, and whenever you get stuck you can always go back to refer the definitions.” If you think about it, this is the actual essence of learning—making it practical and fun from the beginning, and always circling back to the source material when stuck.
Learning is not a linear process. It’s a spiralling process. In a linear process, you learn and you implement—there’s a fixed start and end. While the spiralling process gives you the opportunity to gradually add new ideas, make connections between the ideas, see what fits, and reject what doesn’t. This goes on and on. It doesn’t matter where you start.
Tetris is an excellent metaphor of how real learning happens. What do you do when the tiles start to fall? You rotate them to see what fits—it involves a lot of trial and error. This activity of continuous rotating and seeing what fits isn’t wasted effort. Solving a maze also leads to a lot of trial and error, and you often hit a lot of dead ends. These are all essential elements for deeper understanding of a subject.
After I started my first business, and even after I was well into my second business, I always had to circle back to Zero to One and The Hard Thing About Hard Things no matter how many times I had read them already. What I’m trying to say is, even if you spend a lot of time delving into theory, you are going to go back to them at a later time anyway, so there’s no point in trying to master everything before taking the first step. This way you’ll save a lot of time in procrastination as well.
When I did street photography, it was just me and my camera out in the streets. It was after I took a bunch of ugly shots that I started reading upon how to get better at it. It was only after I realised how intimidating it can be that I read Thomas Leuthard’s and Eric Kim’s best practices and tips on street etiquettes. I started guitar with a few easy chords and the most common songs. Then I went to Justin Guitar to improve my craft. I started iOS development by trying to build an app. When I got stuck, I went to Stack Overflow or a friend. A decade back, I started to learn design in the very same manner.
The best way to get fit is to start by exercising and getting rid of sugary food. If it’s a thick domain (for e.g. investment and nutrition), you might have to learn the fundamentals—a fraction of it—and start putting it into practice in bits and pieces. When you get stuck or want to up your game, simply circle back to books and other resources.