Tips for Learning What You Don't Know You Don't Know

Learning something new, especially a new skill, is one of the best perks of being alive. And we live in the golden age of learning stuff: coding, cooking, sewing, Minecraft hacks, flaming chainsaw juggling: if you want to do it, there's a zettillion blog posts, tutorials, MOOCs, downloadable PDFs, and Tweetstorms out there to help you do it -- not to mention countless YouTube videos ranging from the charmingly amateur to the terrifyingly professional.

If you want to learn something, anything, there's an expert out there just dying to teach you how ... and by and large, learning this way is very effective.

But every expert suffers from what's called the "expert blind spot": experts tend to forget that what they think is obvious is not necessarily obvious to a beginner. And nothing is more frustrating to a beginner than a giant "oh, that's obvious!" gap in the learning chain.

But if the experts can't see these gaps, what can help you get over them? Here are a few things that have worked for me.

  • Walk around and get lost

Trying to learn something new, especially something in an unfamiliar domain, is like moving to a new city. It can take weeks or months before you can connect all the different 'neighborhoods' in your head. The best way to explore a city is to leave your map in your pocket and walk around until you get lost and then un-lost again; semi-aimless wandering is also the best way to explore a new topic.

Every domain has its own overlapping "neighborhoods" online. You might start with some Pinterest tutorial, which leads you to a blog, which leads you to a forum, which leads you to a video (which is usually where you hit a stop, because ugh video comments). Click on whatever looks interesting, but set a time limit.

If something looks too obscure or technical, don't hit the back button: browse through it. Skim through to the end. You'll be surprised how much of what you thought you didn't understand will come back to you later in an "aha!" moment. Read things that are "over your head"! If you're just starting to sew, skim an article on couture techniques. If you're just starting to code, read something focused on 'scaling' or 'optimization'— but remember, you're not trying to do or even understand any of those "advanced topics" just yet; you're just trying to get an idea of where the boundaries of the possible lie.

It can also be helpful to see what basic concepts look like in as many contexts as possible. Search a recipe site for the name of a technique: what kinds of recipes use it? Look up terms on Safari Books and Stack Overflow: are they used just in one language or discipline, or across the board? Do a Twitter search: is everyone who mentions something in the same place, the same age, or referencing the same link?

Only bookmark the pages and information you come across if you are completely comfortable with never looking at them again. You don't want to be mentally dragging around a bag full of "Oh I should really come back and read this carefully" obligation-links, they will only slow you down!

  • Try to fail

Some tutorials (especially coding tutorials) like to begin things in media res. Great for a sense of dramatic action, bad for getting to "Step 1" without tears. It can be really discouraging to fire up a fresh terminal window only to be confronted by error message after error message because there were obligatory steps 0.1.0 through 0.9.9 that you didn't even know about.

If you go into a tutorial with the mindset of "I'm gonna get this done before lunch" you will be very unhappy. If you start instead with the goal of breaking stuff, you will get immediate gratification.

Don't agonize over which tutorial you want to start with—just try to build or make something related to the biggest thing you want to learn. If you want to learn to make great cakes and you're starting from zero knowledge, what flavor of cake you make doesn't really matter.

When you have "make mistakes" as your stated goal, you won't rush through the broken parts: the broken parts ARE the parts.

  • Ask dumb questions. Ask REALLY dumb questions.

And when you find a broken part, dig into it. Double down, don't just skip the step and hope that things will turn out okay. Every time you run into an error, write it down and look it up. Your batter looks weird? Take a picture and tweet it out and ask for help! Error message? Google it. Your stitches are all bunchy on the underside the fabric? Call your sewing machine repair place and describe it over the phone. Your hair is turning orange? Go ask a question in the forum!

Remember, you can ask the search engine of your choice all your dumb questions. It will never get tired or exasperated. It will never roll its eyes at you. It has infinite patience. You can (and should!) ask the same question over and over again with slightly different wording until you get an answer that makes sense. And because the ratio of beginners to experts is so much in your favor, even typing the most naive questions into a search engine is likely to get you an answer back.

One of the best dumb questions you can ask is "what's the difference between X and Y"? It doesn't actually matter if this question makes sense. When you ask this kind of question you will usually get one of these answers:

  • A. They are the same, they are just different names
  • B. They are different in Z respect
  • C. These two things are apples and oranges, here let me explain at great length why

If possible, try to ask questions that will generate a "C" response, because they will usually state more of what the answerer believes to be "obvious" than the other two answers.

(If the question is presumed to be a semi-riddle, such as "Why is a raven like a writing desk?" then people will ALSO fall all over themselves trying to come up with an answer.)

  • Pay the most attention to what you're told to ignore

There are a couple of phrases that should serve as red flags for any learner. One is "shorthand format", the other is "omitted for clarity". (And the most famous one, although used mostly in a joking way now, is "The proof is left as an exercise for the reader.") If you're watching a video, what parts don't have voiceover, or are hidden in a cut? Anytime you encounter a member of the handwavy evasion family, you should stop short and make sure you understand exactly what is being left out before moving on.

  • Meta up

Every time you discover a lacuna in a tutorial you will slot it into the category of "things people tend to leave out or gloss over." You'll remember to scan recipes to figure out if the eggs need to be at room temperature or the butter chilled; you'll double-check the list of dependencies that have to be installed before you can start the tutorial; you'll figure out which parts of the video you're going to have to play at quarter-speed. Eventually you'll be able to generalize figuring out gaps—a whole new skill!

Even better, deliberately paying attention to these kinds of omissions should help you get better at teaching others the things that you are an expert in. Instead of thinking "oh, this is obvious" it's always better to flat out say "This may be obvious, but ..." (Demonstration of this is left as an exercise for the reader.)

Dive Deeper

If you want to know more about the Pastry Box Project, you can read about the genesis (and goals) of the project.

Swim In The Stream

A stream of all the thoughts published on the Pastry Box Project is available. Keep it open somewhere, and lose yourself in it whenever you feel like it.

Meet Your Host

There are not only pieces of software talking to each other behind this website. There is a human, too. The Pastry Box is brought to you by Alex Duloz.

Stay Tuned

You can follow @thepastrybox on Twitter. For direct inquiries, get in touch with @alexduloz.