Learn to succeed

I spend my days at a desk behind a keyboard typing. While I can type relatively quickly, I can tell you I was not hired because I write 100 words a minute. I am a knowledge worker. I get paid because of what I know, not for a particular skill I possess.

The funny thing is, my current profession uses knowledge that I gained not from school, but from teaching things to myself through a combination of book reading, podcast listening, tutorials, conversations, and more. The list of sources is long, but I have savored ever scrap I could pick up. I have always enjoyed learning and tucking things away. The moment I stop learning is the moment I will start becoming worthless.

Knowledge is valuable. Without it, most of us would be out of a job.

If you have a job like mine where you are paid for what you know, what are you doing to keep getting more knowledge? How are you growing yourself and pushing your limits beyond what you currently have? I hope that the answer is not just “I run into problems while on the job.” In my experience this is not enough. Yes, you learn from encountering things you’ve never seen, but typically what you gain is experience applying your current knowledge base, not new knowledge. It just isn’t the right time to be seeking out brand new things that you’ve not heard of before.

Learn to grow awareness

I find it best to use somewhat of a filter approach to new things. There is so much knowledge available it can be hard to know where to start. I try to cast a very wide net and hear about as many new things as I can. What I don’t do is go try to master ever new thing that comes along. Some kind of awareness of what is out there in my area of expertise is enough. That way when I am faced with a problem where a new solution could be a better fit than what I’ve done in the past, I can consider applying it instead.

I mostly keep my awareness up through listening to podcasts. I have other means too, like twitter, blogs, etc. but my source of choice is the audio podcast. It sometimes drives my wife nuts because I listen to podcasts all the time. Doing the dishes, driving, exercising, just about any moment that I am doing something that doesn’t require active attention, I will listen to a podcast. I am not at a computer, I generally can’t play with whatever the hosts are talking about, but I gain awareness about a good many tools and trends through listening to others talk about them.

What is your source? If you can’t think of one off the top of you head, seek one out. There are lots of ways of keeping on top of what’s available.

One note about Twitter, it’s a fantastic place for quick consumption. For some it can work to keep up the type of awareness that I’m talking about, but tweets themselves are usually too short to get a good understanding of what a new thing might actually be useful for.

Learn to look more closely

Once you have a good breadth of awareness, you can start seeing problems you are faced with in a new way. Rather than looking for ways you can apply old experiences, you can start thinking of them as opportunities to apply new knowledge. If you have heard of something that sounds like it might fit the bill and the deadline for the project is not looming, take a look at a new tool, or new technique, or whatever is applicable to the situation.

This is a dangerous time, though.

It can be very tempting to reach for a new thing just because it is new. It is also very tempting to commit to a new thing, just because it is new. Doing either of these things before confirming it is a good course of action can lead to regret.

Instead, spend some time seeking out specifics. Take you understanding level from awareness to familiarity. In particular, look for reasons why your new toy will not be a good fit for the problem you’re facing. Arming yourself with possible pitfalls can often be the difference between a successful implementation of a new tool and disappointment on all sides of the table.

Not everything you consider will be a good fit. In fact more often than not it wont be. Furthermore, this is not a bad thing. You should make heavy use of what you already know because there is great value in experience. It is when you never consider an alternative that falling back to what you know can be dangerous.

Learn to apply when appropriate

If everything lines up, you do your due diligence, and the benefits of trying something new outweigh falling back to experience, then take the leap!

It will take you longer. It will be more difficult than it seemed at first. You will not be an expert right away. You will make mistakes and wish you had done something differently.

Expect these things to happen and take them in stride. The only way to become proficient in something is to use it and gain experience with it. If you are not making mistakes regularly, you are not really learning. Just don’t make the same mistakes twice. As you gain experience and additional familiarity with new things, they will get added to your fallback set of tools. That is a victory.

Or perhaps it wont get added to your tool belt. Applying something new once is generally enough to tell you if it’s worth continuing to pursue. If it is not, depending on where you are in your application, it may be worth backpedaling and taking another tack. However, if you have spent adequate time vetting before applying, this is a rare occurrence.

Learn to expand beyond the obvious

Along with learning things directly affecting your daily work, it is equally important to expand your knowledge beyond what may feel immediately obvious. None of us works in a vacuum. Half of what you need to know has nothing to do with your specific industry. Gain awareness of anything that interests you.

I try very hard to pay attention to business and leadership information. I also really enjoy marketing. I still keep track of some happenings in the world of video and post production, which is what I got my degree in. It is surprising how often knowledge starts to cross over from one topic to another. For example, I’ve used motion graphic techniques to help me with CSS animations.

Getting to know a wealth of topics helps to keep you creative and unique. Leaps from one topic to another are what will help set you apart for the person right next to you learning the same industry specific things you know. The extra breadth in your knowledge base can be the difference between just doing a job, and doing a job with excellence.

Learn to be humble

As a knowledge worker it is important for me to learn everything I can. Hopefully that helps inspire those around me to also seek out new things and grow. My favorite part of being in a team is that I don’t have all the knowledge. Even the most junior developer that joins our team has experience with things that I’ve probably never even heard of.

It would be very easy to be defensive about that fact, but that does not get anybody anywhere quickly. I don’t know everything, nor will I ever know everything. When someone on my team asks me about something I have never heard of, I will admit that immediately. And then I will ask them questions about it to gain awareness. I love chatting with new team members and trying to discover an area of expertise they have that I don’t possess.

See how that works? People are often the best filters for all the noise that is out there, but if pride gets in the way of using your network to grow, you will get passed up very quickly. Everyone has something to teach you, so be humble about what you know, and never assume your way is the only way.

Learn to be excited

When I was just starting to really learn about the Bible, I was feeling particularly discouraged with how much I didn’t know. Everyone knew more than me, or at least that is how it felt. But my good friend, who now happens to be my wife, took me aside and gave me some of the best advice I have ever heard.

Do not be discouraged by how much you don’t know. Be excited that there is so much left to learn.

You can learn for a lifetime and not be finished. Don’t let that discourage you. Let that excite you. You can continue improving yourself. You’ll never have to stop. If there was a finish line, life would be boring.

They know enough who know how to learn
– Henry Adams

Go learn something.


  1. Great post, Luke! I’ve been really feeling this lately.

    What podcasts do you recommend? I like to keep up with the folks at 5by5.tv and WP podcasts like the Matt Report. Do you have others that you like?

  2. Eventually I want to make a page that gives out my podcast list, but everything in it’s time. I tend to have a fairly fluid playlist. Right now top recommendations are

    Web Tech:



    The list keeps going, but those are some good ones!

  3. Great post, Luke and I love Ashley’s quote! You could create a whole talk on this topic. Definitely a wealth of knowledge here.

    This reminds me of the Shakespeare quote, “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”

    When you have so many new things coming at you everyday, it can definitely be overwhelming. Life is an ongoing learning process, where you never really reach your goal, you just keep traveling that path.

    I really enjoyed this, thank you for posting.

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