How to Learn Anything

How to Learn Anything
A couple of months ago, I asked my friends, “What do I know or can I do that you wish I would teach you?” Learning is my favorite thing, and I wanted to find out what my friends thought I could do already that I could help them learn. I found out that there wasn’t just one thing, but instead a sort of class of things. They said how to podcast, how to knit, how to learn another language, how to do improv, and how to sing. Those are all things I can do and they all have one thing in common: each of them goes beyond being a simple skill, and instead encompasses a whole domain of knowledge.

There are a lot of blog posts and articles that will give you tips for learning anything, but they tend to take the approach of learning how to do a particular skill. What I am good at, and what I’m going to teach you how to do in this blog post, is engaging with a knowledge domain, which encompasses finding relevant resources and using them both to learn a suite of related skills and to build a network of other people in the same knowledge domain with whom you can learn and grow (and who might even become some of your best friends).

Here are all the different techniques I use when I decide to get obsessed with something new.

Ask a friend. Do you already know someone who is really into the thing you want to learn? I don’t like to explicitly ask folks to teach me these things, but I am comfortable saying to a friend, “Hey. You’re into [x]. What are the top five resources you use to keep up with it?” This is a good way to find out the best places to go, without putting an ongoing burden on your friend.

Read a book. I like books because they are great places to get a lot of information in an organized way. They can take you step-by-step through a process. They can connect you with other resources to try next. They are portable. You don’t need headphones to enjoy them. I have used this book as I’ve learned podcasting, and even though it’s ten years old, most of the information in it is still pretty valuable. To find a book relevant to your interests, you can Google the topic and add “book” to your search, like so. You can search or navigate the categories at Amazon or GoodReads. You can use WorldCat to find relevant books in libraries near you. Or you can read on for more tips…

Read a blog or online magazine. Blogs are great because they can keep you up to date on the newest happenings in a domain. They often have rich archives you can read through, organize related blog posts into series, and have comments sections where you can meet other people who are interested in the same thing. When I want to know the latest happenings in the world of web development, I visit A List Apart and Smashing Magazine. As with books, the easiest way to find new blogs is to search for your topic and add “blog” to your search. You can also try browsing through an aggregator like AllTop or use the Discover features at popular blogging services like WordPress, Medium, or Tumblr.

Subscribe to a newsletter. E-mail newsletters are experiencing a renaissance, and I’m excited about it. I subscribe to several podcasting newsletters, and I always have a sense of what is hot or new in the podcasting world because of it. One of the best things about these is that once you subscribe, you never have to come back. They just keep popping into your inbox and are there whenever you are ready for them. Again, an easy way to find these is by searching for the topic plus “newsletter.” The newsletter publishing service Revue also offers a gallery you can browse to find newsletters that might interest you.

Watch a video. YouTube is the most obvious choice for this, but it’s not the only one. There’s Vimeo. And, of course, your public, school, or academic library may have subscriptions to video services that you can access for free to find things that aren’t available on the open web. I honestly don’t know how anyone parented before YouTube. When my son was a newborn, I used a YouTube video to learn how to swaddle him. It was immensely valuable.

Join a forum. There are many specialized forums for various areas of interest. Just like with books and blogs, a search for the topic plus the word “forum” should get you where you need to go. I did that “ask a friend” thing when I wanted to get into mermaiding, and my friend Lareina Ladyfish pointed me to MerNetwork, which has a resource page that then points to several valuable threads.

Use social networking services. Already spending a ton of time on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram? Why not turn that into learning time? Use hashtags to find people talking about your topic. Look for relevant Facebook groups and Twitter chats.

Take a class in person. It feels obvious, but it’s worth mentioning. This is how I learned to do improv, and there are some things where this is the way to go. In person, you’ll get to practice the thing you want to do with immediate feedback from a dedicated teacher. The easiest way to find these is to search for the thing you want to do, plus “class” and the name of your city. (For example, “aerial silks class durham nc.”)

Take a class online. For some things, it’s easier to learn on your own time. Platforms like Craftsy, CreativeLive, and Skillshare let you consume instructional content on-demand but also offer an environment where you can converse with other learners and receive feedback from the instructors who developed the course. This is how I learned to knit. The nice thing about many of these is that once you purchase a course, you can revisit it. Which I will definitely need to do with knitting, because like Liz Lemon, every two years I take up knitting for… a week.

Find an organization, meetup, or conference. In some cases, the best way to learn a thing is to just jump in and do it, even if you don’t feel ready. To do that, you might find an organization or event that is dedicated to it, like a community theater group, a ukelele jam, or a makerspace. You can find all kinds of groups at Meetup.com. You can also really immerse yourself by going to a multiday conference or convention. Just search for your topic with “conference” or “convention.” I went to Cosplay America this year, even though it would be generous to describe me as even a casual cosplayer, but I learned a lot that will serve me well when I really dig into cosplay. (Which I will.)

Find a mentor. This might be easier to do once you’ve tried one of the other options and met some people, but there are some people who reach out to strangers via Twitter or similar and ask them to be their mentor with some success. For tips on how to do that, read Never Eat Alone. I tend to obtain my mentors through more traditional means. A mentor doesn’t even have to know they’re your mentor, though; you can just watch and learn from them. But if you’re lucky, you might find out that they were intentionally mentoring you all along.

And finally…

Ask a librarian. For many librarians, helping people find the resources they need to learn what they want to learn is explicitly part of their job description. If you’ve exhausted all those possibilities above, or you’re overwhelmed by all those possibilities above, and you’re not sure where to start, find a librarian. Tell her what you want to learn. Ask him where you can find the best resources. Explain to them what specifically about doing this new thing excites you. Don’t know where to find a librarian? If you want to actually meet one, face to face, you should probably find a local library. If you’re shy about that, you might be able to find a chat reference librarian who will meet your needs or you can ask a librarian at the Library of Congress.

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16 responses on “How to Learn Anything”

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  • Gwenda Bond

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