Difficulties in learning and discriminating knowledge

Like a lot of people my age, I have spent the majority of my life in formal education. I remember dreaming of the day that I could just go to the toilet without having to ask someone. I dreamt of being able to spend time doing the things that interested me, instead of cramming Spanish vocab in my head, only to have it stay there for 5 minutes less that I actually needed. Even though at the time, it felt like that day would never come, it has. The problem, as with most dreams, is that it isn’t quite what I imagined. Today I just want to focus on one specific part of that. I want to talk about difficulties in learning after leaving formal education and discriminating knowledge.

Rigid systems

Schools, and to some degree universities, are quite rigid systems. Like everything, this has upsides and downsides. The upside is that the track you have to go through is quite straight forward. You start at the beginning and work your way through to the end. There may be choices along the road, like a major, but even if they seem important they are somewhat limited in scope. There’s a limited amount of choices that you have to consider. It’s also quite easy on the overhead. It’s not too difficult to keep track of everybody since you just have to check one or two lists, instead of a complex web of rules. This is not really an advantage for those partaking in the system, but I suspect it is at least part of why it is so widely spread.

The downside is that this doesn’t really teach you what you need to know. (That always seems to be the problem when we talk about education, isn’t it?) It doesn’t teach you to discriminate knowledge. What knowledge do you need? How well do you need to understand it? How do you acquire it? These are absolutely critical skills if you want to be effective as a knowledge worker, especially in an industry that moves as fast as technology. Of course, the institutions attempted to put together their curricula so that it covers what you need to know. The problem, however, is that in a rigid system you can’t tailor to people’s needs too well. Not only am I talking about how people learn, but what they learn.

How much is enough?

“Old habits die hard,”  says the proverb. In my school years, I picked up the habit of sequential learning.  What I mean by that is that there was assigned material for the things that I needed to learn, and I would go through it piece by piece until I felt I understood them and then move on. That habit worked pretty well for me in school, so it got reinforced for years. That is why I suspect I’m having so much trouble breaking it.

Now that I’ve stepped out of the formal education system for a year, even though I’m planning to go back, I’ve realised that that mode of operation is no longer going to serve me well. When you’re out on the field, it’s your responsibility to know what you need to know. The problem with learning sequentially is that it’s way too slow. There is just way too much material out there to go through it all. Which means you’ll have to start discriminating knowledge.

So then, how do you know what knowledge you need? The only way to know that I’m familiar with is through experience. Among my friends in uni we have a saying: 

Only when you’re done doing something will you know how you should have done it.

This is a cruel truth. Sadly I don’t know any way around it. Now, of course, you can try and guess what kind of knowledge you’ll need to a job, but he fact of the matter is that making predictions is inherently a flawed practice. There are also going to be people who will try to convince you that they know. Here you must remember that all they can give you are predictions and opinions. They might turn out to be right, but there are no guarantees. At the end of the day, it’s still your responsibility.


I think this meme expresses some of my feelings quite adequately.

I suspect that my situation is not unique. So now I will try and outline the solution I’m trying for this problem, in the hope that it might help you if you’re in a similar situation. My not-tried-or-tested strategy consists of three steps: learn to learn, specialise scrupulously and muster a mentor.

Learn to learn

Firstly, and I think most importantly, you must learn how to teach yourself effectively. This, I think, is one of the most, if not the most, critical skill you can have as a knowledge worker, especially in the field of technology. This field is moving at a pace unmatched throughout history. Every year, every month, heck every week, a new technology emerges. To stay relevant, you’re going to have to find a way to keep up. If you’re looking for recourses to help you do this, I can recommend “Soft skills”  by John Somnez. It has a few chapters on how you can teach yourself effectively.

Specialize scrupulously

The second step is to take a sort of free-market approach to learning. Learn shallowly about as many topics as you can. Just skim the concepts, so you know that they exist and broadly understand what they are about. After that, just leave them. If it interests you or is useful to you, you can always continue with it but don’t feel like you immediately have to become an expert in it. Then, when you know about the subjects, you can specialise in the subjects as they become relevant to you.

The upside to this approach is that you’ll learn about the things that you need the most. Another upside is that learning is way easier when it has a clearly defined purpose and end goal. I speak from experience when I say that just trying to learn as much as possible, in a vacuum, is really hard to keep doing.

The downside is that this strategy is quite intensive. That is why I advocated for being able to teach yourself. That way you’ll to be able to pick up the material as it comes by. This is not easy, but I think it is effective. Another downside to this approach is that it might be hard getting started. The strategy sort of assumes that you can find relevant work which might not be the case. Maybe you just don’t know what you want to do and by extension what kind of subject you should start skimming.

The thing to do here is to have lots of small projects. You want them to be small enough that you won’t really care if they flop. Build a three-page website, build a calculator android app, make a game with just two levels, try to build a tick-tack-toe AI, buy a Raspberry Pi and start automating your home, see if you can break into your own WiFi-network from the outside. When you do this, pay attention to which projects get you excited, which work well, and which don’t. Not only will this tell you what you might want to specialise in but it will also build you a portfolio, which is a huge boon if you’re looking for opportunities.

I understand that this might be hard for you. If you’re a perfectionist or have trouble of letting go of sequential learning, like me, it might be hard for you to give up unfinished projects or to only skim certain subjects. While it is something I empathise and struggle with myself, I do think it is something we’ll just have to learn to get over. I have trouble with it, but it’s not impossible. For example, after I did my post on latency vs. throughput I decided to leave parallelisation alone for the moment and focus more on data visualisation in Python. That was hard, but I’m glad I did it.

Like I said, old habits die hard, but they’re not immortal. I have been surprised by how much you can shift old beliefs, habits, and mind frames with a few simple tricks (for me, the most effective so far is trying to increase your bodily awareness, but that’s a story for another day).

Muster a mentor

The last step is to seek a mentor. Find someone to help you along the way, preferably someone who’s been, or currently is, where you want to go. I know this sounds hypocritical since I just told you to be wary of other people’s advice a minute ago but bare with me.

The truth is that mentors can be immensely valuable, but there are a few buts involved. Firstly, you can’t just follow them blindly. Just because they’re more experienced than you, don’t mean they know everything, so evaluate what they give you critically. Secondly, they won’t have the time to babysit you. I can tell you right now, any mentor that’s worth having is going to be busy and won’t have time to spoonfeed you. Do have to do the legwork yourself. Ask them specific questions and show that you’ve done all that you could to find it out yourself. If you do this correctly, mentors can be an immense help. If you want to learn more about mentorship I recommend you pick up either “Soft skills”  by John Somnez or “Lean in” by Sheryl Sandberg. Both have excellent chapters on being and finding mentors. ( While “Lean in”  is somewhat of a feminist manifesto, I still highly recommend it. Especially if you suffer from imposter syndrome, but again, that’s a story for another time).

Making hard decisions

All of these things are hard, I get that. That is why people don’t just do them. It can be extremely hard to make decisions like these. I guess that’s the meat of the problem, isn’t it? How do we make hard decisions? I guess it’s both disheartening and a bit encouraging to realise that making hard decisions is, by definition, going to be difficult. It is something we are always going to have to work hard for, whether the questions are about education, health, morality or anything else.

I do think it is worth the effort, though. Behind those hard questions lies a better life. There is an incredible wealth that we can attain if we just focus on the hard questions. Sometimes, just figuring out what the correct (hard) questions to ask are, is the hardest question of all. I have noticed over the past few months, that focusing on the hard questions, to the exclusion of everything else, is incredibly satisfying. Thus that is something I will strive to do, for the rest of my life. I just have to remind myself of that fact every now and then.

So what do you think? What do you think of my strategy? Do you think I can improve it? Do you have strategies of your own? Please, let me know in the comments below!

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