How to Learn Stuff

The only thing a college degree really proves to an employer is that you know how to complete a four-year long project. Of course for many of us even that takes much longer. I’m sure you all know what the types of college degrees are – BS, MS and PhD – which stand for Bull Shit, More Shit and Piled Higher and Deeper.

The most important thing you need to learn to survive in life is how to learn. Sometimes this merely involves paying attention. Most of the time you need to put in some effort. Never be afraid of learning how to do stuff by doing it wrong. Trial and error is a time-tested way of learning. The most ineffective method of learning is relying on others to help you or even worse, blaming others for your own inability to learn.

I worked in the R&D department of a data warehouse where they hired me to replace an employee who had a PhD. He may have had a degree but he wasn’t able to use facts to make something work. He was always spending so much time writing what he called ‘pretty, pretty code’ he never finished a project that worked.

I was at the data warehouse only a few months and had already designed a user interface for a new product  and re-written code to rejuvenate some old products when someone asked me “Whats your degree in?” After I stopped laughing I said that depended on if he thought an Associate Degree in electronics technology actually counted as a degree.

At one point there was a new product they wanted to develop which monitored microclimates and reported the information to niche customers. I already knew some general knowledge about meteorology from hanging out in the weather department at a TV station helping them with their computer problems. (That’s an example of using the “Paying Attention” method.) When I found out I needed to learn more about the specifics of microclimates I said “I’m going to B&N. I’ll be back after lunch.” I came back with an armload of books which I read drinking in knowledge about things like pressure ridges and downdrafts. A big  hint here is:

Don’t judge a book by its cover – judge it by its index.

I knew that even though I had some small experience in meteorology I was going to need more than that to make the project succeed. I wasn’t afraid of putting the effort in to find out what more I needed to know for the project.

When I was computer tech at another place I was one of three techs managing several hundred machines. One day one of the other techs and I were talking about how files are saved on a disk at machine code level. The third asked how we knew stuff like this. We both said we just read the books and played ‘what if’ with the software code. This goes back again to not being afraid of getting it wrong the first time. To do this there was quite a bit of effort and dogged research. Effort which the third tech some how never managed to put in. There were always too many video games to be played instead.

The three best ways to learn stuff: Books, Books, and Books. Then experience. Above all have no fear to experiment. How else can we expect to keep those Idle Thoughts coming?

About the Author


After sixty some years you start to notice patterns. You get to see whats permanent and whats temporary. What's important now and what will be important later. If you want to read what I think go ahead. If you don't like what I'm saying, there are a lot of other blogs out there and I'm sure you can find some you like. In addition to what you find here you might want to check out my online stores. There's lots of curmudgeonly stuff there too.
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