In Business, Know A Little About A Lot

When we were at school, and college, and university, we were rewarded for knowing a lot about a little. As we narrowed our interests in college and even specialise in university, we focus all our efforts in one area and we are thrust into the workplace with that one thing we are any good at, what a vulnerable situation to be in.

I didn’t go to university so I never specialised, although I considered it, but when I went to college (twice) I studied 8 different subjects. In the UK, the majority of students will take on 3 subjects in the first year and reduce to 2 in the second year, honestly I didn’t really get that concept when I was younger and it definitely shaped my future. I didn’t do well enough across so many subjects to warrant a place in a good university and I ended up in the workplace earlier than a lot of my friends that I looked up to.

Looking back I thought I had put myself in a weaker position than my peers and assumed I would forever be working in jobs packing cigarettes, or selling paint, or carrying drunk students from their vomit sprayed toilet cubicles and out onto the street to sober up and continue on their journey to specialisation – happened more times than I can count.

I set myself a challenge and joined the military for a short period before opting out most of the way through training. I put in about 18 months of my life to this endeavour and it was probably the most valuable period of development in my life. I learnt from this experience that I (or indeed anyone) can achieve anything and go further both physically and mentally than I once thought.

With the help of some friends I found my way into software development and progressed from there. I never became particularly good in one language or discipline but I was happy with the wide varying areas I could speak of confidently. Over the years I saw gaps appear in the organisation and I gladly filled it, learning from the ground up and ensuring I was capable of dropping into any role when it was needed. Knowing a little about a lot has made me more valuable to my company and given me the safety net of being able to move from role to role should my current job not work out.

It pays to know a little about a lot because it gives you the flexibility to do what you want in work and move more freely from job to job (should you need to) and be a highly valuable asset to your company. Too useful to ignore might be the modest way to describe it.

Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know”, but make sure you ensure the next time someone asks you that question again that you can give a better answer. Learn what your colleagues are doing in other departments, you might just find the direction you want to move in an organisation, at the very least you will be able to move should your department become redundant. Learn more and more, don’t let the end of your educational years be the end of your education, you are far more mature now and in a better position to know what you need to learn and as a ‘grown up person’ you can choose what you want to learn!

You Can’t Write All The Time

I’ve started a blog a few times in the past and eventually ran out of steam, sometimes quickly and sometimes over a reasonable period of time. Maybe it was that I didn’t have enough to share, and maybe it was because I felt like an imposter to be contributing to a blog regularly. There is the other factor of finding the time to sit down and write, but I think there is a case for taking a break to consume information so you can form your own thoughts on a topic.

I don’t have a problem with topics for writing on this blog, I have 30 other topics to write on and that list grows faster than I can publish completed posts. Some are born from overheard conversations or the offhand remark with a friend/colleague, and other times it is a conversation I have had so many times before that I want to write my thoughts out in a cohesive way so that when someone asks me in future and I don’t have the energy to contribute but the want to put my point across, I can just say “I wrote an article on this very topic, please read and get back to me”, how bloody obnoxious would that be!

The answer is pretty obnoxious and I hope I don’t come across that way. Frankly I know there is a ton of content being put out daily and my meandering thoughts are hardly going to win me an award. I don’t mind if nobody reads any of this, it’s just a good outlet for me, and if by chance another soul gains something to help shape their own opinions by reading here then I would see that as a bonus.

I haven’t written anything in about a week maybe, I haven’t checked really and that’s ok with me. I don’t want to get hung up on how often I post or how long of a posting streak I can achieve, these are vanity metrics and I have no time for them. I’ve been spending my time reading more lately, I have a few books on the go at the moment and I might go deeper into each as I finish them. Surely You Must Be Joking, Mr. Feynman is nearly complete and I’ve found some relieving insights from a very intelligent man that I can take into my home and work life, I’m particularly enjoying the topics related to students ability to memorise for exams but learn nothing of a subject that can be used in the real world – it’s not what you read, it’s how you read.

I’m also reading American Gods. I know the series is available to binge but I have decided I would rather read the book first because I rate Neil Gaiman as a writer. I’ve watched a few films and then read the books afterwards with varying levels of joy and pain when it came to comparing. I’m not in a rush to consume the information and get my opinion out there, so I settle in for the long road of reading and enjoying the book. I don’t need to write every day, it is a wise approach to listen more than you speak and the same holds true for reading and writing.

If you’re thinking about writing and getting your thoughts out there, don’t trouble yourself with the pressures of constantly putting out content. Quality is more important that quantity, this includes beer despite what other schools of thought might sell.

Listen To Your Elders

When I was younger I used to receive advice, or be given a good talking to by my elders and I remember thinking – “You think you know everything, but you’re wrong”. For the most part I would just let it go in one ear and out the other, seeing no evidence to the education I was receiving.

You need to do this, and you need to do that, if you want to make something of yourself in this world. Alright old man, maybe in your day but this is the modern world and I’ll be known as a millennial someday and things will be different, I’ll have my own challenges to face and everything you are telling me now will be irrelevant.

That obviously changed as I got older and when I started accepting I didn’t know anything about being a grown up, after all I have never been this age before and that is a theme that will repeat itself for the rest of my life. With that in mind, others have been this age before and it is with the benefit of hindsight that those ahead of me in years can impart wisdom and experience to me for free.

I’m still careful to absorb advice only where sound evidence is present but I am more open to listening to those that are older than me. Interestingly when I try to impart knowledge and experience to those younger than me, I receive that familiar response that I once retorted to my future self.

So, probably in vain, the best parting advice I can give to those growing up in the world is to listen to your elders. I’m sure my words will be heeded…

Educational Maturity

I didn’t excel in school or college, I used to just think that I wasn’t smart and it seemed that no matter how much harder I studied my grades would never reflect my efforts. Maybe I wasn’t trying hard enough or I was lazy, and maybe I was just not ready yet to throw myself into learning.

I look back on my school days and appreciate now that at the time I was not mature in a childish sense, but also intellectually. I didn’t read out of choice, I had computers and board games and the outside world to occupy my time, it didn’t matter what the weather was like either. Reading was the last thing on my mind, I did enough of that at school or at least I felt like I did.

I think if I read at home and at school I would have burned out but who knows, that might just be an excuse. I know now that I make a clear divide between my work time and my home time. It helps me to organise my time and my mind. I read more now than I ever have because I appreciate the value of learning and bettering myself in my work and in my self.

I’m not a huge fan of the traditional education system because it assumes everyone matures at the same time and rate, but in reality there is a clear divide between those that learn better early in life and those who take time to mature into it. I matured into it in my late teens, too late to affect my past grades, but maybe that was a blessing in disguise because I have an enjoyment of it that I might not have had I been engorged when I was younger.

I learn smarter now that I am older, I appreciate that I only have a limited number of years to do it and so I choose my materials more carefully. It is like when you see a child climbing a tree without fear and realise you have grown up and now have the necessary presence of mind to appreciate the dangers and the impact on your body and life if you were to fall from that tree. I don’t waste my time reading material I am not getting value from and I will often start learning a subject or reading a book only to put it down because I no longer have the enthusiasm.

It reminds me of the ‘best exercise to do’, is the exercise you are willing to do. You want to do the minimum possible to get fit and strong and want to know where your efforts are best placed. The answer is the exercise you are willing to do. No 2 exercises give the same benefit, some are harder than others and less appealing. If you enjoy cycling, go ride a bike. If you enjoy push ups, do push ups. If you want to climb rocks, go climb a rock. If you want to learn something to make a living from, pick something you are interested in and leave the dull topics behind. Experience and maturity has served you well so far and you now have the control to learn whatever you like, without being restricted to an institutions “variety” of subjects.

Pass Your Test, Then Start Learning

I look back at school a lot like I looked at learning to drive. When you learn to drive you learn to do all these precise ordered movements and actions when executing manoeuvres, and these collections of instructions make sense so you memorise them for the test where you recite these definitions physically to show you “know” how to drive.

I remember vividly making excessive effort to show I was looking in this mirror, followed by this mirror, followed by checking my blind spot, followed by indicating….you get the point. I passed my test on the fourth time of asking, just for full disclosure, I failed once because I gestured to a pedestrian that I would wait so they could cross, this constituted a fail because I had risked the pedestrian’s life because my gesture suggested there were no other threats such as a motorcyclist passing at that moment. Frankly I think that is up to the pedestrian to decide but she was not under test conditions at the time so go figure.

My point here is that when we learn to drive we memorise what we need to do, without really caring why it is defined that way, because we are only interested in the freedom of the road. In the same way, we only memorise in school because we are told that giving these memorised answers will get us a good grade and prove we understand the material. Unfortunately, as with driving, we never truly understand a topic until we get practical with it.

I passed my driving test and when I was alone on the road I realised that my passed test was just proof that I could recite the textbook definitions, not that I knew how to drive. When it came to physics, I could recite the textbook definition for planetary systems and the paths of planets, but I could not tell you where a given planet would be at a given time and date. I learnt to drive over the years following my passed test, which might sound scary but lets be honest in that we all had the same experience.

The same can be said for other subjects, particularly those we did in school. Maybe we really engrossed ourselves in higher education when we could choose the subjects we studied, this was the first step into freedom to learn and the realisation that education is independent of institutions and all about self belief and effort.

I left school with 11 C’s, I went to college (twice) picking subjects from the subset available at my local colleges, and then I opted out of going to university because I finally realised that my “knowledge and ability” was going to be determined by a faceless examiner that would decide my future based on a trivial exam paper and coursework.

Instead I went into the real world finally and learned the cold hard truth of having no specific path in life. I worked packing cigarettes, selling paint, nightclub security, and finally joined the Royal Marines training programme to test my resolve. It was hard work and I gained a lot from the experience that led to my current path. The night I returned home from training for the final time I bumped into a friend and we talked about how I had got to where I was, I explained I had no idea what I was going to do next and he suggested I learn web development as it was freely available online if you were willing to put in the effort to seek out the information (alternatively you could pay a service that has done the hard work for you, you just need to consume the material they give you). I spent a week learning html and css from a free online resource, and most importantly I put it into practice by making terrible web pages and breaking things and fixing them and understanding how to do things with a web page, not just recite the css box model or the semantics of html.

What I gained from the Royal Marines was the realisation that I was capable of anything, my body could do more than my mind was telling me and if I just persevered I would reach the other side and push on just at the moment I thought about quitting. After 1 week of learning html and css, I got a job within 4 weeks and did some freelance jobs…the rest is history.

The takeaway from all this is to not rely on certificates and qualifications, they are not a fair indicator or ability. Get the experience and put it into practice to prove your worth to another.

Curse Of Knowledge

The more you learn, the less you can recall of what it was like to be a beginner. This is the problem many encounter when they attempt to teach a beginner in something they are considered an expert in. The perspective of a a beginner is that everything needs to be explained, while the perspective of the expert is that the low level parts are easily understood and can be skipped over to get to the expert parts.

I have dabbled in learning various topics and I usually start by searching the topic name on Google, which results in reading mostly articles from others who have more experience in the topic than me. The key thing I notice is that articles can fall into 1 of 3 broad categories – beginner, intermediate, or advanced.

At any stage in my development I must assess a resource before investing too much time in it to ensure it matches my current level. I will often find that the majority of the articles I encounter are too hard or too easy for my current level. Once I have settled on a batch of articles at my level to help me improve my knowledge I dive in.

The problem that occurs at no matter what level is the difficulty of teaching a concept at a level below the authors ability, it is a catch 22 situation where you cannot teach it until you understand it and once you understand it you struggle to bring yourself back to the stage where you were just learning at that level.

How strange it is to put your mind in that of a person who’s level of knowledge does not match your own, you must teleport your mind back to when you were at that stage in your learning and attempt to recall what your thoughts were at the time. I recall being at school during exam periods and sketching my revision notes on many sheets of paper and consuming the wide range of material, followed by reconstructing my revision notes into a smaller collection of revision notes. I repeated this process until the networks in my brain allowed me to look at an A5 piece of paper and recall the broad topics such a small note instructed my brain. Show that same revision note to someone not at that stage in their learning and it would look like a foreign language.

I believe that to understand a topic you should be content with not rushing your learning so that you can be an expert in an unreasonably short period of time. Comprehension is the key to learning, not speed, and this takes time. There is plenty of time and it is about the journey of learning more than getting there, so focus on absorbing the knowledge rather than how much you can wash over yourself in a short period of time.

Speed reading techniques exist but even these I have tried and found my comprehension fail. Ask me to explain what I have read when speed reading and I struggle to even remember doing the speed reading. I prefer to just read little and often, like I am exercising or eating, I consume and absorb until I am hungry for knowledge again.

Don’t be in a rush to learn something, we are all standing on the shoulders of giants and we all have to climb there. If getting to the top of a mountain was the reason we climbed we would take a helicopter, it is the journey that people will be most interested in.