This is my last post as a Lifehacker staff writer, so I want to leave you with some meta-advice. When you want to learn a new skill, don’t use just one book, or app, or YouTube tutorial. Try a lot of them, stick with a couple of them, and occasionally consult others.
During my time here, I’ve taken piano lessons and drawing lessons. I’ve looked for the best apps for memorization, the best apps for solving a Rubik’s cube. And each time, I learned best by jumping between different learning methods. So will you.
You’ll find what you like about the skill
“Playing guitar,” for example, is a broad skill, and you might not yet know whether you want to sound like Joey Ramone, Carole King, or Vampire Weekend. You might think that you want to learn your favourite rock song first, but find that it’s actually much more satisfying to learn chords one by one. Or to do that for a day before returning to a song-by-song approach.
Concepts will click for you
A lot of learning involves building mental models and schemas: a colour wheel, the food pyramid, sheet music, a flow chart, a story outline. It can involve mnemonics, rules of thumb, all kinds of concepts beyond the raw information you’re learning to process. Every learning method will use a different combination or presentation of these concepts, and some presentations will click better than others.
Solving a Rubik’s cube, for example, involves some abstract concepts and tricky spatial reasoning. Some of the basic moves didn’t click for me until I’d seen them explained five different ways by five different apps. Only then did I know which way I preferred to think of those moves, and choose the app that followed it.
You won’t give up so easily
Every few years, I try to learn to code. As a kid I used a “For Dummies” book and a couple of BASIC books. As an adult I’ve tried a few online courses. Each time I give up when I’m a little frustrated. And then months later, I come across a problem that coding could solve, and I wish I’d stuck with it.
There are so very many ways to learn to code, I would never run out. And if I really get serious about it, I should try about ten of them at once. Because when I hit the frustrating part on one tutorial, I can jump to another, and another, until I’ve cobbled together enough skill to tackle the first one again. Same for when I’m bored—I can find a more fun method that feels like a break, but is still teaching me.
It fills in the gaps
No teacher or tutorial can encompass all the valid ways of learning a thing. A guide to precise classical piano cannot teach you jazz piano. Strunk & White cannot teach you to write a florid fantasy novel. Bob Ross cannot get you into the Guggenheim.
If you want to get serious about a skill, you have to have more than one influence. You have to be ready for new challenges, you have to find your own voice, you have to adapt to added difficulties that your main teacher may not anticipate.
You might also have to discover your teachers’ biases or flaws. Any topic worth studying also has some areas of controversy, and you should be aware of the different outlooks, whether or not you agree with them. You might end up changing your mind (take it from a former Creationist Christian conservative who read some library books and went online). You might strengthen your viewpoint, or synthesise a new one, instead of parroting what you’ve been taught.
For two and a half years at Lifehacker, I was lucky enough to be paid to learn. I won’t stop learning now. I hope you don’t either.