Table of Contents
In this, third, part, we are going to discuss various ways how can you boost your learning skills. Today’s article will be focused on tips that will help you increase your ability to learn new concepts and expand your knowledge. You will also learn that you can turn knowledge into your competitive advantage and how learning can improve your overall health. Without further ado, let’s begin.
All parts of the 7 Soft Skills Every Freelance Web Designer Must Have series:
7 Soft Skills Every Freelance Web Designer Must Have Pt3-Learning
Soft Skill No.3: Learning
If you are a freelancer, you probably know how valuable and important soft skills are for you, especially learning skills. Well, let’s be honest. In today’s world, if you are not willing to learn new subjects, technologies, methods and so one, you will quickly be replaced by someone who is. Your ability to learn is another child of soft skills “family” you can use and turn it into a strong competitive advantage. However, it is not just about whether you are able to learning. It is also about how fast can you do it, how fast can understand new concepts, test them and adopt them.
When you are working on all of these factors, the probability of you being replaced by someone else decreases significantly. In other words, other people will simply not be able to keep up with you. This is, I think, the best and healthiest approach to competition. It is not through setting the lowest price possible or working as long as your body and mind allows you. Although all of these approaches might “work”, they are shortsighted. In the long-term, both of these approaches will slowly kill both, you and your love for your work.
Knowledge as Competitive Advantage
On the other hand, when you answer your competition with huge amount of knowledge, experience and expertise instead of underpricing and working long hours, it will surprise them. It will be that uncomfortable kind of surprise and they will have a hard time coping with it. Why? You can change the price of your services in a couple seconds. You can force yourself to work harder and longer on the spot. Unfortunately, or fortunately, the same does not apply to knowledge.
Gaining new knowledge and expanding your expertise can’t be done as fast. It requires a time investment from you. It also requires that you put in the hard work. Let’s face it. Knowledge, or any other information, will not just magically copy itself into your mind. You have to read it, watch it or listen it. However, even if you go through these steps it’s not over yet. The next step is to put your knowledge into practice. Otherwise, everything you learned will soon fade out, as you might already figured out in school.
This is the best thing on knowledge and expertise. I’m serious, there is not a piece of sarcasm or irony. Depending on the industry you are in, there might be thousand, even millions, people competing with you on a daily basis. Luckily, when filter those people through the sieve of willingness to learn, this group will get significantly smaller. However, what if you filter it furthermore? I mean, what if you leave out everyone who stops after right after getting familiar with knowledge? What if you focus only on people willing to complete the learning process?
By completing the learning process I mean acquiring and internalizing the knowledge. In order to close the cycle, you have to put the knowledge into practice. Not only that you have to practice the knowledge or skills regularly. Only then, it will become a part of you, something nobody can take away from you. When you focus only on people willing to go so far, your competition will quickly go from thousands or millions to dozens or even individuals. After adopting this approach – competing with knowledge – you no longer have to worry about what prices this or that Joe is charging or how hard he is working. You are no longer in the same game.
Wide or Deep
One of the arguments against focusing on acquiring knowledge is that it is not possible to go really deep, or to master many areas. Let me tell you right now that this is a nonsense. This pseudo argument is usually presented by people now willing to put in the hours and do the “hard learning”. First, you have to understand that they use arguments such as this one to defend themselves. It’s just like with Galileo. When he said that the Earth is spinning around the Sun, and not the other way around, people wanted to burn him.
It is precisely this mechanism of self-defense that’s often behind the arguments like the one I mentioned in previous paragraph. An, although I would love to get deeper into this debate on the subject of mastery and being jack of all trades, I will resist it. It could sway me off the track and we could easily spend next fifteen minutes discussing just that. What’s more, I already went all-in into this discussion. For all of you curious about how to become master in more than one subject or discipline, I recommend that you read Specialization Is Wrong, This is What You Should Do Instead article.
In this article, you will find everything you need to get rid of that “jack of all trades and master of none” mindset. You will also discover a handful of learning tips to increase your chances to become an expert generalist. This is a term that I use for people with deep knowledge in wide range of discipline. Also, I suggest that you use that article as an additional reading to this one. To give you a proof about this expert generalist concept, take a look at people like Isaac Asimov, Charlie Munger, Isaac Newton, John Stuart Mill, Galileo Galilei and Leonardo Da Vinci.
Now, back to today’s subject. There are two things I want you to know before we will move any further. First, you don’t have to push yourself to acquiring knowledge in more disciplines. If you want to use learning to stay proficient in one are, go ahead. Nobody says that you have to do something different. And, if there is actually someone, you don’t have to listen or follow his advice. It’s your life, your decision and also your responsibility. Just understand that when you make a decision, you should accept it with not just the pros, but the cons as well.
The second thing is that you don’t have to force yourself to choose between going wide or going deep. To some degree, you will be able to study multiple areas or disciplines without sacrificing the depth. There are couple ways you can structure your learning process and habits in order to acquire deep knowledge in more than just one discipline. You will find all of them in Soft Skills Academy for Improving Learning section. Still, there is one more myth we have to crush.
Learning and Age
I’m too old to learn new things. How often have you heard statement such as this? Or, have you used it by yourself? Unfortunately, many people believe that as they get older, it will naturally be harder for them to continue in learning process. Well, this is true and also false, somewhere in-between. Pretty example of fuzzy logic right? This statement is true simply because there is scientifically proven decline in cognitive abilities with age. Basically, yes, learning will get a bit harder as you get older. However, this is not something that has to happen.
In a fact, by following certain steps, we will discuss today as well, you can slower or even avoid this decline. But first, let me give you two scientifically proven facts to support my claim that your learning ability does NOT have to deteriorate with age. The first one is neurogenesis. The second is neuroplasticity. So, how these two facts relate to your learning ability and age? In a short, neurogenesis is a process of generating or creating new neurons in your brain. Neuroplasticity is a process in which brain basically changes itself. This phenomenon is also known as brain plasticity.
Neurogenesis allows your brain to create new neurons and build new connection between existing ones. You can imagine every neuron as a communication pathway in your brain that transfers information from one place to another. The more of these connections your brain has, the faster it can process and retrieve information. Simply said, neurogenesis boosts your learning process. Neuroplasticity even bigger implications. It says that your brain can significantly change itself according to various stimuli such as behavior, environment, thoughts and emotions.
It has been also shown that your brain can go through physical changes in order to deal with brain injuries. These changes can vary from small to large. Example of a small change reshaping or changing the structure of individual neurons. Example of a large change can be reshaping whole areas of a brain, like when area will overtake a function from another area that was injured. The point is that your brain can go through changes visible on brain scans. This is something science knew for a long time.
The Good, The Bad
However, it was long assumed that these processes occur only in childhood. Only recent studies showed that both, neurogenesis and neuroplasticity, are present later in the life as well. This basically means two things for you. First thing is a good one. You can sustain and even improve your learning abilities through your life. And, it is never too late to start, your brain is able to adapt and keep up. The second thing is a bad one. Well, bad for specific sort of people. The second thing is that science just crushed almost all your excuses.
You excuse of being too old for learning is no longer valid. Scientific studies showed that neurogenesis may be a used in therapy for neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease. There are also studies showing that challenging your brain regularly by learning new concepts and expanding your horizons can slow even reverse cognitive decline in case of older people. So even if you are in your fifties or sixties, learning can still make a difference.
The only question that really matters is whether you are willing to invest your time and effort into it. Just like with diet and many other things in your life, it is all only about you and your willingness to make a decision and sticking to it. The benefits will significantly outweigh the costs. So, are you willing to go for it?
Soft Skills Academy for Improving Your Learning Skills
Let’s say you are willing to give learning it a shot. Let’s also suppose that you are not from that sort of people who think that study phase ends in the moment you leave school. Let’s say you are motivated to continue in learning thorough your life, be it in school or not. Where should you start your educational journey?
The first tip for boosting your learning skills should be something that works regardless of your current study habits. It should be something that will improve your chances to retain new knowledge even if the last time you’ve learned something was years ago. For this reason, my first suggestion is 80/20 rule. We’ve already discussed this rule or principle couple time on this blog. In short, it says that that eighty percent of output comes from twenty percent of input. This ratio can vary, but the underlying message is the same – majority of results is created by minority of factors.
To illustrate this better, let me give you couple examples from different areas. As a freelancer, you can find that the biggest part of your income comes from couple of clients. Your top ten percent of clients is responsible for seventy-five percent of your income. By the way, the ratio doesn’t have to equal one hundred percent. Another, web design-related, example can be that just five percent of the files make ninety percent of the total size of the website. If you are using hi-res header images or videos, this is quite simple to “achieve”.
In order to prepare for these exams, I dedicated the five or six days before the date to studying for the whole day. I also made my best to focus only on the most important parts of textbooks. With this approach, I was able to compress one year of study into one week and two to three hundred-page textbook to couple dozens of A4 pages of raw facts. The results? Average score in exams in range between seventy and eighty percent. Quite good on one week of relentless study, right?
I recommend that you try to apply 80/20 in similar fashion. Meaning, before diving into any material, take a few minutes to find out the parts with the biggest impact. I would bet that the vast majority of books you have prepared for gaining new knowledge contains only about twenty or thirty percent of facts. The rest is just a sauce to fill the pages. Just think about it … How would you sell seventy or eighty-page book? How much could your publisher charge for it? Next, imagine that you add another one hundred fifty or two hundred pages. Now, you are in a different game.
If you don’t believe me, take some random non-fictional book. Next, read it from the first page to the last one. And then, summarize the book in the form of excerpts you can use in the future to recall what you’ve read. Unless the book of your choice was a dictionary, excerpts in your reading diary will be significantly shorter than the whole book. Does it mean you forgot something? Does it mean you are not able to tell me what the book is about? No.
Although your summary is much shorter, you still know what the book is about. You still can probably spend next ten or fifteen minutes talking about it. You gained some knowledge. Conclusion? You don’t have to read everything! Get over that voice in your head that is telling you the opposite. It is only fear of missing out. Focus only on what’s important. How?
The first step is to create a system for reading books, mainly non-fictional. This system should include couple specific steps you follow every time. The first step is to get familiar with the book. This means reading the preface and the table of contents. Next identify more important chapters and chapters that are less important. If you are already familiar with the subject, you can find out you can skip some chapters. Then, read the first and last line of each paragraph and feel free to skim the rest of the text. These are often the two main points of every book.
Authors often use the first line or two to give reader introduction into the topic. Then, they use the last line or two to summarize the paragraph. In some sense, every paragraph is like a separate book or essay – it has introduction, something in between and the conclusion. Remind yourself this and use the system I described every time you approach a book (mainly non-fictional). Doing so will help you get through the book and gain knowledge faster. If in doubt, you can always go back.
On the Shoulders of Giants
Next tip to improve your learning skills is to connect the information in the material to something you already know. This way, you will partially bypass the need to create completely new connections in your brain. Your brain will use some of its current connections and build upon them. As a result, you will be able to recall more information even after the first time with the book. This is also the reason why you are capable of learning faster about something you are already familiar with. You are simply not starting completely from scratch.
I will give you a real-life demonstration of this principle. Let’ say you want one new floor. This gives you two options. First, you can build whole new one-floor house. Unfortunately, it will take you a while. You will have to find a place and excavate foundations for the house, build networks for electricity, water and so on. As you can imagine, it will also be more expensive. What’s the second option? You can take your current house and “simply” add this floor on top. Then, you will not need to look for new land and other things you had to do in the first option.
As you found out in the first paragraph, the same principle is also applicable to your learning skills. The step-by-step process can be easy and it can be hard. It depends on the amount of your current knowledge. In other words, the more you know, and the more you will learn, the easier the process will be. Every time you will want to learn about something, look for ways to connect it to your existing knowledge. Find a way to connect new facts to facts already stored in your memory.
What if you can’t find any direct connection? Don’t worry, nothing is lost. You can some indirect ways. For example, you can use synonyms or antonyms, concepts of opposite meaning, visual imaginary, mnemonics and so on. You can also use your own memories and experiences. One tool, related to your memories and places you visited, is a memory palace. You can learn about this tool in Five Simple Ways To Increase Your Learning Skills article.
If you spent the first half of your life immersed mainly in beletry, you can also try to use the characters from these books as a metaphors for new knowledge. This way, you will be able to exploit the good guy vs bad guy concept. Then, you can use it to learn physics or chemistry for example. Remember that the only limit is your own imagination and creativity.
Note: What if you are convinced that you are not creative person? Well, this is a myth. Everyone is capable of being creative. The only problem is that you were not training for a while. In some sense, creativity is like a muscle – the more you use it, the better it will work. When you will not use it, it atrophies. What if your creative juices are temporarily depleted? Don’t worry. In Creativity – 10 tips to become an idea machine you will find ten well-tested tips to replenish your creative juices and get them into motion again.
Switch Between Subjects
Let’s suppose you like the idea of being expert generalist or well-rounded person. You have also selected several subjects or disciplines you want to learn about. How can you setup your learning process to avoid overload? My suggestion is to create a schedule that will almost force you to switch between selected subjects. Here is the thing. Even the healthiest things are dangerous when you overdo the dosage. Also, why do you think pupils and students in school are learning various subjects thorough the day?
One reason for switching between subjects is that every switch will give you a fresh look at the material and help you focus again. By the way, when you force yourself to study one subject to exhaustion, it will actually do more harm than good. In other words, the more your brain is exhausted, the more time it will need to process the information. Just try to work hard (mentally) for the whole day and then try to learn something in the evening.
The result? You will need at almost double amount of time to go through just one page, not to mention your ability to recall the information. Studies showed that studying material over a number of relatively short sessions is much better for long-term retention. This is called distributed-practice effect. Another good reason for switching between subjects, or to shake up the materials here and there, is to simply avoid boredom.
We all probably know that feeling when we read some book and the introductory excitement is slowing disappearing. In that case, there are three possible options. First, you can get over it and just finished that damned book. Second, you can drop the book and never look at it again. However, what if this disappearance of excitement is just a momentary thing? Then, there is a third option. You can put the book aside, read something else and wait until your excitement will return.
The conclusion? Remind yourself your school years and create a study schedule for yourself. One thing I forgot to mention is that you should keep the switching at a certain level. Meaning, don’t jump from subject to subject every five minutes. Remember that your brain needs some time to get fully engaged in the subject or activity. Frequent switching will also exhaust you faster because your brain will expend more energy. My suggestion is to keep your sessions at least twenty-five minutes long.
This window is often used in productivity methods such as pomodoro. Personally, my favorite length of learning windows is about an hour. Sometimes, if the subject really catches my attention, I will increase it to two hours. Then, I will take a short break. The length of this break depends mostly on how exhausted I am. It is mostly somewhere between five to twenty minutes. After this break, I will either get back to that subject or start new learning session focused on different topic.
Sleep on It
Have you taken your vitamin s today? If you want to look for vitamin s on Google or Wikipedia, you don’t have to. There is no such a thing. By taking vitamin s I’m simply referring to getting enough sleep. If there is anything that either boost your learning abilities or take them down, it is sleep. You can spend whole day with your head in books, but if you will not get a good sleep, your ability to recall information will be pretty bad. And, it is not just about the quantity of sleep, but also about its quality. Seven hours of poor sleep are not better than five hours of great sleep.
In order to reap the most benefits, you need both. You need to make sure your sleep quality is high and it’s long enough. Only then, your soft skills will be as sharp as they can. My length of sleep is between seven and half and eight hours. It all depends on how fast I fall asleep. Fortunately, in the vast majority of cases I fall asleep fast and get close to eight hours of quality sleep.
Increasing the length of your sleep is one thing. Question is … How can you improve the quality of quality your sleep? I have three recommendations for you. First, avoid caffeine in the afternoon. Seriously. It can take up to six hours, even more, before your body will get rid of it. Until then, it will still affect your hormones and your ability to fall asleep, even if you don’t feel it. Second, don’t use screens before bedtime. This is not a joke. You should make it a rule that no screen devices are allowed before the bedtime.
Otherwise, the blue light will affect your melatonin levels and make it harder for you to get asleep. If you need to use screen, make sure to use some blue light blocker app. My personal choice for desktop (Windows and Mac) is app called f.lux. This app is also available on Android. It was also available for iOS with jailbreak, but this is no longer truth. So, if you are an iOS user, download the latest version of iOS, 9.3, and turn on the “Night shift” mode. My third recommendation is to black out your bedroom.
It is proven by common sense that we sleep better in darker environment. It is also proven by science that having light sources in your bedroom can disrupt your sleep patterns. And, by light source I also mean those small crystal digits on your digital alarm clock. Even if you make your bedroom pitch black and avoid using screens before bedtime, your digital alarm clock may still affect the quality of your sleep. So, if you are serious about your sleep and want to keep alarm clock next to your bed, you should replace it with analog one.
The last argument to underline the importance of sleep is that your brain needs it. When you sleep, your brain goes through everything that happened in the day and stores the important things into your long-term memory. It is also during the sleep, when your brain cleans itself from toxins and chemicals accumulated through the day. See how sleep is important for your soft skills? For more tips on how to sleep better, take a look at Sleep Smarter book.
Let’s Play a Game
The last advice on improving your learning abilities, and soft skills in general, is to give yourself a permission to play a game here and there. Whether it is on your phone, tablet or computer, games can have very positive effects on your brain. From increasing the size of your brain and the number of connections in your brain to improving your attention, focus and reaction time. Also, if played with another people, games can help you create and strengthen bonds with other players.
I should admit something. I don’t play computer or mobile games, except brain training games (Lumosity, Peak and Elevate). Although there were times, in school years, when I would spend majority of day immersed in RTS and shooters, now I consider it a waste of time and actually boring. I simply prefer to experience the real world and use my time to build things other people can use. Anyway, even for someone like me, there is a way you can use game principles for improving your learning abilities and make your soft skills better.
The magical word is gamification. Look for ways you can turn your learning process into games or fun. For example, give yourself points for every chapter of the book or tutorial you are reading. Then, when you reach certain amount of points, reward yourself with something healthy. You can also use these points to turn your learning adventure into RPG (game genre, not the weapon). Meaning, when you gather certain amount of points, you get to new level. This is also a good way to measure your progress and stay motivated. You can find more about this leveling concept in Level Up Your Life book.
What if you are not interested in using gamification for improving your learning skills? Well, you still can use games to let of the steam, relax and recharge your batteries. Remember that you are in this “game” called life for a long-term. It is not worth it to push yourself to breakdown. Take regular breaks so your body and mind can cope with all the stress. The last words? Just keep in mind to not overdo it. Games can be useful, but they can also do harm.
Closing thoughts on Soft Skills and Learning
Here it is. We are in the end of the third part of 7 Soft Skills Every Freelance Web Designer Must Have series. There are two important lessons, I hope you will take from this article. First is that knowledge can be your advantage. Second is that there is never too late to learn something new. Now, it’s up to you to implement the tips you learned today and make it easier for you to compete with knowledge instead of price. So, go ahead. Build your expertise, escape the rat race and smash your competition with rock-solid knowledge.
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