Learning in Public

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When I had my first decent internship last summer, I was amazed at how quickly and effectively I picked up the tech skills (mostly SQL) that I needed. I had gotten a shaky introduction the topic the semester before, but at the internship, I blew past my previous skill level. It felt great to learn and to use what I was learning.

Fast forward to the following semester of school, and I’m bored out of my gourd, retaining nothing, feeling like I’m wasting my time. COVID-mandated online classes and Senioritis aside, why did this suck so much? Why wasn’t I learning as much or having as much fun as I had at my internship?

Academic learning doesn’t have the same feedback loops as on-the-job learning, which kills motivation and makes it possible to waste way more time on things that don’t end up being important. When you’re learning alongside others in order to accomplish something it gives you:

  • clear prioritization for the things you’re learning
  • frequent gauges of your progress
  • a support network that understands your needs
  • tons of positive reinforcement when you’re on-track

It feels good to learn like this. Really good. But how do you replicate this when what you’re learning isn’t on-the-job? You trick other folks online into becoming your coworkers and classmates, doing your work and your learning out in the open. Part of doing your learning in the open, though, requires putting things out that are not completely polished, not all the way there. This violates one of the biggest laws of content, and definitely requires you be comfortable sucking sometimes.

One of the biggest benefits of doing your work in public is that you’re visible to cool people that are doing similar work to you. This is one route to finding yourself one or more scenes, simply by letting collaborators find their way to you via your public content.

This blog (and the concept of Digital Gardens in general) takes advantage of that momentum, motivation, and feedback that comes with learning things in a visible space. Rather than sticking all my thoughts into a Roam database or my notes app, I tend this garden here, online and fully visible. I push updates whether or not things feel finished because my focus is on stress-testing my own thinking and keeping a collection of my thoughts. If anybody gets something from it, that’s a happy side-effect.

Some great readings on this idea:

swyx.io is probably the king of #LearninPublic so I’d be remiss not to link his article (and you’d be remiss not to read it)

Andy Matuschak has a nice writeup about doing your work “with the garage door up” that illustrates the concept through a beautiful metaphor connecting tech folks with artists and craftspeople.

Anne-Laure Le Cunff has a good post about how learning in public requires building in public.

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