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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Stuff I Learned: June & July, 2014

June and July were very busy months for me and I learned a lot. I thought I’d share some of it with you. Here goes!

Maker Faire NC. I went to Maker Faire NC on June 7. It was my first Maker Faire ever and it was pretty amazing. I was rather overwhelmed by both the number of people and the amount of stuff to see, but I still managed to explore, try new things, and meet new people. At The Bored Zombie‘s booth, I made my first quilt block.

My first quilt block
My First Quilt Block

This reminded me that I really enjoy sewing. I also bought the Learn to Solder Skill Badge Kit and learned that essential tremor and soldering aren’t good company for one another. My sister, Mary Elisabeth, made me a set of chain mail earrings with help from the good folks at Split Infinity Jewelry. Fueled by our Maker Faire fervor, she and I promptly went out and bought Aranzi Aronzo’s Cuter Book and supplies for making little felt stuffies, which we then promptly did.

Maker Faire was awesome and reaffirmed my affinity for the Maker Movement. I’ll definitely go back next year, and I hope to check out some local Maker Meetups soon.

Microsoft Office Mix. Have you checked out Microsoft Mix yet? It’s a supercool extension for PowerPoint that lets you make Khan Academy-style instructional videos and share them. I learned how to use this for a project at work. Here’s an example of a Mix I made – to show you how to upload your mix. How meta!

If I were still in the classroom, especially if I were in a 1:1 school, I would definitely use this for lessons students could come back to as often as they needed for reinforcement. I would also use it as an assessment, asking students to make their own Mixes to show me what they learned.

iBooks Author.  Speaking of things I would totally use if I were still in the classroom, I learned to use iBooks Author to create incredible multitouch books. I hate that these are exclusive to the iPad, of course, and I hope to one day figure out how to build such things with HTML, but it can’t be denied that this tool is easy to use but also feature-rich. I highly recommend the Lynda.com iBooks Author Essential Training course, if it’s available to you. There’s also a series of iBooks Author for Teachers courses with Mike Rankin that might suit your needs. And Lynda.com does offer institutional memberships, so you might try to convince your school or system to throw a little Professional Development money their way to help you with technology integration.

Content Strategy. At work, I’m responsible for literally thousands of pages of open educational resources. Each of these pages includes a huge amount of information. Content strategy is going to help me organize it all. I’m just dipping my toe into the waters. If you work in any sort of web publishing situation, you should check it out.

Improv. You may have noticed that I stopped writing follow up posts after week 2 of my improv class. That’s not because I didn’t learn anything, but because everything from that point forward was deeper learning about stuff I’d already mentioned. Especially listening. I swear, improv teaches you to listen so hard. Since then, I’ve performed in my class showcase and in something called The Humor Games, which was beastly. From that experience, I learned that being a really good novice doesn’t mean you’re accomplished at something. Other improv performers who have been doing this a long time have an ease on stage that I just don’t yet. I’m game for anything and I go big, which means my improv is usually fun, but some of these performers just blew me away, and competing against them felt really hard. But now I’m taking Improv 201, refining my skill, and learning even more. But mostly still learning that you should really listen, already.

Crochet and Knitting. So this is half a cop-out. I already knew how to crochet. But I’ve been taking Kim Werker‘s Crochet Basics and Beyond on Craftsy anyway, because I wanted to brush up on the finer points of crochet. Already I’ve learned how to make my stitches tidier. I also started Stefanie Japel’s Knit Lab. It’s a great class, but equally delightful to the class itself is the fact that it comes with the Knitter’s Handbook, an amazing in-depth resource with videos, images, and instructions for a variety of knitting techniques.

Crocheted Circles
Crocheted Circles

Thanks for reading all of that! I promise not to wait so long to update you on what I’ve learned next time.

What I Learned from Improv: 101, Week 2

Remember how I went to improv class last week? I did it again this week! And I learned some new stuff, and had some earlier lessons reinforced.

Here’s what I learned:

Listen better. When you’re up on a stage with somebody, and you don’t have a script, you better listen carefully to what they have to say. Because if you don’t, what you say next might not make any sense or flow logically. And while that’s fun sometimes, it makes a story or scene hard to follow. I would argue that this is valuable even when you do have a script. As an actor, it can be hard to remember that the character you’re playing is saying your lines and hearing other people’s lines for the first time, ever. When actors bring the active listening technique from improv (and therapy) into their performances, I think the performances are much more effective and organic.

Be ready to let your ideas go. You might have a plan for where the scene is going, but you’re going to relinquish control of the scene regularly. So you need to know that your plan might never be executed, and be ready to work with somebody else’s plan. Again, this is valuable in daily life, too. I call myself a Type A- personality, which means I’m slightly less neurotic than somebody who’s Type A. I’m still a extensive planner. But I’m not actually in control of the universe, and my plans don’t always come to fruition, and I need to be okay with that.

Everybody hears Darth Vader differently. I’m not going to explain that one. Take from it what you will.

What did you learn this week?

 

What I Learned from Improv: 101, Week 1

Last night was my first improv class at DSI Comedy Theater, where I took sketch comedy writing from January to April. I’ve done improv in the past, as a “theatre person” (we pretend we’re British, so we spell it -re), but never for its own sake – it was either to build rapport with a cast, or in my least favorite situations, to try and discover things about characters that weren’t in the script. (Lots of actors find great value in this. I’m not one of them.)

Thanks to my theatre experience and a lot of time spent pretending I was on Whose Line Is It Anyway?, I didn’t come in as a total n00b; on top of that, I’ve listened to the audiobook of Tina Fey’s Bossypants at least 3 times, so I had a grasp of some basic improv vocabulary, chiefly the idea of YES AND.

But I had (and still have) so much more to learn, so my hope is that weekly I’ll do a little debrief here. These will be personal revelations more than improv tips. If you want to learn improv, you need to, you know, do it. Without further ado, here’s some stuff I learned in Improv 101, Week 1.

can be a good listener, if I decide to be. I talk about myself, pretty much non-stop. It’s a known flaw of mine, it runs in my family, ohmygodI’mdoingitrightnow. When I watch other people do improv exercises (or anything in life at all, really), I tend to think, “What would I do there?” Knowing this about myself, I decided that when I got up for an exercise, I needed to listen to my partner carefully, rather than always having my mind racing on to the thing I was going to say next. I was pretty sure I was going to fail at this. But mostly, it worked. I only sort of skipped ahead to my next thought once really.

Relationships are funny. I didn’t really try this one in one of my own exercises, but stories are always funnier when they are about a relationship between two people with a shared history. So this is the thing I’m going to work on next time, I think – figuring out, in the first few beats, a relationship to my partner. And then being fluid with it, so if it evolves over the course of the scene into a totally different relationship, that’s totally cool.

Specific = funny. I already covered this in sketch comedy, but it’s true here, too. And it’s harder on your feet, when you don’t have time for revision, to get specific. So my hope is that I’ll learn to start specific, which will save me some time in my writing process in the future.

My life is a rich tapestry of pop-culture references. In one scene, I drew on both a B-plot from an episode of Sex and the City and a quest in South Park: The Stick of Truth that is itself a reference to Game of Thrones. I consume a lot of media, in many forms: TV shows, books, comic books, video games – and I really think that whole “If you want to be a writer, read a lot” thing comes up in improv, too. I felt like I was able to get specific quickly, to draw on stories I’d seen in other realms, without outright plagiarizing. Will Hines says you’ll learn a lot from improv because other people will mention stuff you don’t know. I look forward to my classmates letting some of their interests come through in their scenes, so I can find even more stories and facts to go check out.

And that’s just week one! Last thing: Our homework is to find a “Yes And” moment in life sometime this week and share it on the class forum, but I’m doing a little experiment – I’m going to look for a “Yes And” moment every day. And then I’m going to share it on Tumblr.

What I Learned from Sketch Comedy

I’m two sessions away from finishing Sketch 201 with DSI Comedy Theater. Since January, I’ve spent most Saturday afternoons sitting around a table with other sketch students, talking about what makes comedy work and figuring out how we can make ours better. Why am I doing this? One, because Tina Fey is my hero. Two, because I’ve always liked writing funny stuff. Three, because I felt like it.

But more important than why I’m doing it is what I’ve learned. I’m not done yet, so I’m sure I’ll learn more, but here are some of the things I’ve taken away, that aren’t necessarily about the mechanics of sketch writing.

I can sit down and write if I must. I’ve always been that idiot who thinks academic writing can absolutely be forced, but creative writing can only happen when the muse strikes. All of the writing books will tell you that you just need to put your butt in a chair and write, but like many people, I always thought, Maybe that works for you, but not for me. Nope. Turns out it works for me, too. But what I’m writing at that first pass might not be great, and that’s okay, because…

Sometimes the first draft is really the outline, and that’s okay. In addition to taking this class, I’m working full-time, taking a graduate level Digital Humanities course, and just finished performing in an operetta. That means writing time must be squeezed out, and there was one day when I had about 45 minutes to get my sketch done. This meant I didn’t have time for careful planning and brainstorming. It meant the writing was the brainstorming. I weekly send my instructor a note that says, “This is a very rough draft, I’m so sorry, I’m still working out my ideas.” But of course, that’s what drafts are for. In a research paper, you might be able to create a detailed outline before you sit down to write, but you’ve done a lot of the intellectual work already. In creative writing, the writing is the intellectual work.

The best comedy comes from pain. The funniest things I’ve written have consistently been when I’ve taken on something that depresses me. A sketch about how desperate librarians are to prove their relevance – how hard they are working to demonstrate their natural awesome – while at the same time not losing track of how much they really love the work? Hilarious. A commercial parody recruiting teachers to work in North Carolina, taking every change the legislature has made to gut the career and making it sound like an enticement instead? Priceless. Sometimes I actually feel worse after writing these – but they’re still funny.

I’d rather write satire than anything else. I’m very content to view fluff, but I want my comedy to mean something. I’d rather be South Park than Family Guy. (Which is not to say Family Guy is never satirical, but I think if you run the numbers you’ll find South Park is satirical more often.)

Specific = funny. A librarian pulling her pants down to show people her hip tattoo? Funny. A librarian pulling her pants down to show people her hip tattoo of Ranganathan’s laws of library science? Funnier.

Thinking Out Loud: Affinity Phases

If you’re familiar with the work of James Paul Gee and Henry Jenkins, then you’re probably also familiar with the concept of affinity spaces. Briefly, an affinity space is a place, either virtual or physical, where people with a shared interest can get together and informal learning takes place. If you want to know more than that, Wikipedia has your back.

I’ve been feeling like I want to take up a new hobby – in particular, an art or craft. I’ve been trying to figure out what it is. I was thinking about origami, but I’m not settled yet. I was also thinking about a decision I’ve made recently: to give up on being an expert. If I have an honest epitaph when I die, it’ll say, “She didn’t work up to her potential.” This was the rallying cry of my teachers over and over again. Which, I have to tell you, says a lot, because in high school and grad school I was pretty stellar. So my potential must be galactic or something.

I just don’t always apply myself. Or, more often, I apply myself, really hard, and then I stop. And it doesn’t just happen educationally, but in my hobbies/personal interests, too. Craft supplies and interests accrete to create a Great Barrier Reef of Stuff-Kimberly’s-Enjoyed-but-Doesn’t-as-Much-Now-but-Might-Come-Back-to-Later.

I’ve decided to call this process of getting super into a thing and then letting it fade into the background an “affinity phase.” I made a little timeline of my life to track these, and while some have distinct periods of activity, others sort of float around and I come back to them from time to time. What qualifies something to serve as an “affinity phase” in my life? The number of books I’ve read, blogs to which I’ve subscribed, or supplies I’ve bought can be a good indicator. The number of people to whom it connects me is another one.

I was watching the Making of Featurette on Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing Blu-Ray. He was talking about whether he’d do another Shakespeare or not, and sort of dodged the question, saying that he wants to do lots of different things. He said he’ll never get very deep into one thing, so he might as well go for breadth. I pointed at the screen and flailed. Joss Whedon gets me, you guys. (In case you’re curious, the Joss Whedon affinity phase of my life extends from 2000-2003; he hangs around but fades into the background after 2003.)

So I’ve identified this phenomenon in my life, named it, and am working to embrace it. My next step is to figure out how to make it work for me. In one sense, it already has – I’m currently working in a job where I get to do a million different things, most of which draw on some core affinity that I’ve had over time (education, web design, writing, editing), and where most importantly, I am expected to and rewarded with praise when I keep learning new things. But in a more personal sense, I feel at sea. I’ve got to figure out how to live with and be happy with this very essential part of my nature even when I’m not at work.

I’m re-treading ground here that Kim Werker covered more than 5 years ago. That’s okay. We’ve all got to figure these things out in our own time.

Stop Worrying and Start Showing Up

When I was a junior in high school, my teacher unceremoniously dropped a test with a low grade on it on my desk and hissed at me, “The play you were in is over. There’s no excuse for grades like these.” This was one instance in a long line of many when a teacher called me out for not working to my potential. (I worked really hard, so I’d probably be a supernova of brilliance if I’d actually worked up to my potential. Oh well.)

She wasn’t taking a scientific approach to the whole scenario, though. My grades as I’d been rehearsing the play were excellent, because I’d been forced to carefully manage my time and plan for reading and studying. Now, with my evenings completely unstructured, I regularly told myself that I could study later. And later often meant half-heartedly doing the readings and cramming the night before the test.

On the other hand, when I was rehearsing multiple plays, leading the Latin club, writing a skit for the NC Junior Classical League competition, and creating fan works for Sailor Moon, I was handling it all pretty well.

High School Kimberly has some wisdom to offer to 30-something Kimberly. Since I received a diagnosis of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis in 2011, I’ve been carefully guarding my energy, living in fear of trying to do too much for my poor self-attacking body. This month, through a confluence of small accumulating commitments, I find myself working full-time, rehearsing an operetta, taking private voice lessons, serving on the boards of two arts organizations, serving on the boards of two academic organizations, taking a graduate level English course, and taking a sketch comedy writing class. In addition, I’ve taken on the projects in the books One Year to an Organized Life and I Will Teach You to Be Rich.

And in spite of the fact that I feel overwhelmed and occasionally flake out on my responsibilities to the various boards and have a giant mound of dirty laundry at all times, it’s been a great thing for me. I haven’t been this engaged with the world and with life since my senior year of high school.

I really like when people talk about “showing up,” meaning bringing your full self into the experience you’re having – whether that’s work, learning, family time, or something else entirely. For the past 15 years I’ve barely been showing up for anything – out of fear that parts of me will be unwelcome, or that I will exhaust my inner resources, that I will be a disappointment, or that experiences will disappoint me. This month, I’ve been forced to show up. I’ve got too many things going with too little time to do any of them half-way.

I’m learning from this first month of what is bound to be an intense spring semester that not only can I handle taking on lots of things, I can thrive, and I am a better person for doing it.

A Manifesto of Sorts

I do a lot of blog reading, in topics including blogging, craft, educational technology, fashion, video games, children’s and young adult literature, organization, personal branding, personal development, personal finance, productivity, and writing. Via a post on the Personal Branding Blog, I found this excellent post: You don’t need a blog topic. Just start writing.

I’m forever starting new blogs on niche topics. Currently I have them on the topics of craft/design, personal development, reading, and theatre. But I’ve felt a new project coming on, and Monica’s post inspired me. Her advice:

Write about what you’re learning.

I’m learning all the time. It is my favorite thing to do. So here at kimberlyhirsh.com, that’s what I’m going to do: write about what I’m learning. This may fall under any of the categories about which I read.  Learning is always bringing in something new, and will always give me plenty about which to write.

So welcome. I hope you learn from my learning!