During the course of our lives we keep learning new things, but all of the areas in which we could be learning are not the same. Learning does not necessarily mean growth and treating all skills with same learning approach is unlikely to be successful.
Each one of us has a “comfort zone”, an area within which we are comfortable doing things. One can learn more about the same things (PhD’s “know everything about nothing” because their learning is highly specialized) or more about new things.
The key is to realize that we tend to strongly prefer staying in our comfort zone: not just by consciously avoiding unfamiliar and uncomfortable situations but also though our choices. The choices in particular are insidious because they limit the things we can learn: for example, choosing an academic specialty, choosing whether or not to go that event or choosing how we spend our free time.
For instance, for someone who feels uncomfortable with public speaking, always letting someone else handle the speech for an event may be comfortable but it will get in the way of learning.
Here is my model for learning stuff (see detailed advice below):
Comfortable – Routine
Routine things are things you do every day and almost know well enough to do blindfolded. You are probably being paid to do them, and you probably are pretty sophisticated (or at least better than the layman). In learning more, you need to be very specific about what you do to learn anything new. More discipline is useful.
You should probably be looking at which of these things you REALLY should be doing and which of these you could teach someone else and get rid of, and which add so much value that you ought to keep doing them. Be very strict.
Key question is: Which routine parts are unavoidable? What should you drop?
The danger is doing too much crap, but realize that eliminating all routine things is unrealistic and useless as well. The reason why you can do these things well is because they are routine, and that is why someone may be willing to pay for you to do them. Someone who does not do anything routine or easy is also known as an amateur, and who is willing to pay for that?
Comfortable – Easy
These are the activities which are not routine, but you probably enjoy doing them a lot. They are your strengths or special skills and are related to the area which you have chosen to study or specialize in. You have not done enough for them to be routine, but they aren’t hard either, just time-consuming.
You probably could be doing more of these activities, since you are learning more by doing them and are using your strengths. More focus is useful.
However, remember that not everything easy is worth doing. Becoming an ace in these requires focus. Otherwise you are doing too damn many things that are easy but not necessary.
Key question: What should you develop? What should you reduce?
The real danger here is plateauing in your skill level. Even if you are good today, you will get worse as the world around you changes. In IT, this is particularly obvious as new technologies are constantly emerging – similarly with other industries: new business models, new regulations, new procedures.
Uncomfortable – New
These are the activities which are related to what you find are your strengths, but you only have limited experience in doing them. Because of this, you find them a bit uncomfortable.
You definitely are not doing enough of learning by doing these things.
The hardest part in these things is actually getting started. You will most likely prefer to spend time on easy and routine things rather than doing these. You are likely to give yourself some excuse even if you are thinking about new things you ought to do. Being more willing to hit your head on the brick wall every now and then is useful.
The best thing you can do is remember that you should be doing these things before you are completely ready to do them. If you are avoiding failures, you are being too conservative. Failures and negative experiences tell you that you are doing it right: take on the risk. You learn though hardships, not slam-dunk successes. This is particularly hard for people who like to win: you know you might not win, so it feels unpleasant to start.
Force yourself to get started. Page by page, product by product.
Key question: What opportunities should you create?
The danger here is not taking that jump.
Uncomfortable – Scary
There probably aren’t that many you can think of immediately, because normal people tend to live in a zone of comfort through their prior choices.
You probably don’t care about some of these things. Other “scary” things are things that keep coming up in your life as limitations. For example, not feeling comfortable about public speaking is scary for some people (while just new or easy for others).
You are limited by what you believe you cannot do, and you will keep facing situations where you are limited by your lack of learning every now and then. The limitations – the reason(s) you do not feel comfortable with these activities – are most likely a side-effect of your strengths. While sometimes not having enough time is a real and concrete resource limitation, sometimes it is an excuse. It could also be both: you don’t have time to hone the skills because you do other things, and you are not likely to spend any available time on these since they are “scary”.
Being more forgiving for yourself and taking bite-sized challenges is better than overdoing and deterring yourself from future action. Case in point: exercise and dieting – they are uncomfortable, you muster the motivation to start, you overdo them and then quit after a short while because they were unpleasant to do. Wrong approach. Start with small steps, make sure you actually enjoy the small changes and build on that.
Realize that you cannot build a life based on elimination weaknesses but rather you should be building on your strengths. If the limitations are worth overcoming, then you may want to spend time, but realize that it is less likely that you will truly excel in these things. Don’t limit yourself prematurely by believing you can’t do these things, but don’t be delusional either.
Key question: Why are these things scary to me? Do I want to be able to overcome the limitations? If yes, then what is a relatively non-threatening way to incorporate these into my life?
The keywords are non-threating and incorporate. You are already scared, so don’t kill yourself and don’t set yourself up for a negative experience. Incorporating something into your life means making it a reasonably frequent part of your life. If it isn’t reasonably frequent by design, you will not get the relevant experience and learn. Remember, these things are unpleasant, so a bit of pressure works well (e.g. deciding to accept opportunities to speak in public, then promising it to the event organizer to pressure yourself to prepare and perform).
The danger is either ignoring these things completely with no good reason and suffering the consequences as reduced opportunities OR doing too much suddenly and getting permanently turned off from even trying because of the negative experience.
Oh, by the way, please refer back if you use this – I didn’t pick it directly out of some book but rather came up with it . Thanks!