Learn the meta-skill
How to figure stuff out for yourself
This post is about learning how to figure things out.
The phrase I’ll use to describe a person who figures things out on their own is an autodidact. You want to become an autodidact.
Become an autodidact and you will improve your working life. If you run a business or operate solo, the benefits are obvious. It all stops with you, after all.
But if you’re an employee looking to go further, the importance of this can’t be overlooked, either. I’m not just talking about a promotion or raise. You’ll enjoy your work more and, yes, succeed, if you take ownership of learning and problem-solving.
Autodidacts, the heroes we all need
Two truths of any workplace:
People are busy, lazy, or both.
People crave leadership.
When you become an autodidact, you take advantage of these facts. You save others time spent explaining things to you. You project confidence and motivation.
Let’s be honest: this post will help folks predisposed to this mindset. Those with “learned helplessness” will not have their minds changed by this article.
But I’m going to remind you of a few skills and mindsets to encourage autonomous learning. It takes practice, and you will develop your own strategy after experimenting with the ideas listed below. I’m sure you have others to add, too, which I welcome in the comments. Let’s imitate, then innovate, as writer David Perrell says.
Isn’t it easier to just ask people for the answer?
If you want the benefits of figuring stuff out, lean into the on your own part.
In a workplace, benefits of being an autodidact include working faster and improving relationships.
You may think figuring stuff out on your own takes more time when you could just ask others. But you will have to wait for info from others. Also, you guessed it, your learning is limited to what the people around you know.
When you’re not waiting on others for info, or lost because nobody on your team knows something you need, your average is speed is faster. Even if learning stuff takes longer at times.
When you figure stuff out on your own, you establish trust. Others see you as competent. If you rush to people with questions that could be Googled, found in an email, or discovered by continuing down the same path, you eventually annoy people.
I’m not saying never ask a question. But try to figure stuff out on your own first.
Assume nothing works the first time
You will fail when learning a valuable new skill or concept. Keyword: valuable.
If you succeed first try, there are two explanations. First, you already had the skill, so you were not learning anything. Second, it’s that easy, which means it’s not valuable.
(The third reason could be talent. If you find natural talent at a valuable skill, forget about this post and double down on that thing!)
The main point: your first attempts at learning something are just feedback.
The way I experienced this lesson was through learning to code. Here’s my piece for George Lucas’s Edutopia about the process.
I am not a developer, but from 2012-2015 I learned a bit beyond the basics, to the point where I could build a custom but simple web app and launch it live online.
Throughout this process, there were countless times where I thought I had written everything correctly, then pressed refresh and… wah wahhhh. I would get an error screen.
After a few weeks of experiencing this, I began to anticipate it. This led me to scrutinize my work more carefully and led me to persist more when I encountered an error.
You can apply this to anything.
Are you trying to learn a new software? Assume you won’t get it to work right the first time.
Are you trying a new way to interact with a customer or prospect? Assume it will feel awkward the first time.
Are you trying a new workflow for a project? Assume everyone will get confused and you’ll have to walk through it again.
Notice how this mindset differs from pessimism. You’re not telling yourself this thing you’re learning is worthless, stupid, or a waste of time. You trust that it’s valuable, interesting, and worth your time. However, to unlock those benefits requires work. If you anticipate the hurdles, you’re more likely to get to the benefits.
People have already figured out your problem
The good news: there is a very low chance you are doing 100% original work.
This goes against some people’s images of themselves. Their challenges are unique because they are theirs, and because the context is so specific, and the circumstances are just different.
But when you begin encountering challenges in your work and learning how to figure them out, you realize this just isn’t the case. Your problem has been solved.
In our current age, the people who solved the problem may have documented their experience and uploaded it online.
Take any DIY or home repair situation you’ve ever encountered. Type it into YouTube and you will find 10+ relevant videos. You’ll often learn that the problem is something you can solve yourself if you have the proper tools.
When researching how to find answers, break problems/challenges into two groups with different ways to research the solutions.
Direct, one-answer challenges - Go to Google or YouTube. If you want to see a physical demonstration, go to YouTube. Ex: how to do an exercise at the gym, how to use a specific software tool.
Murky, less clear cut challenges - Go to a forum or group. Here, you can read people’s anecdotal experiences. Ex: how to address a certain kind of workplace conflict, how to navigate a certain stage of parenting.
While there is infinite information available to solve your problems, you still have to do the actual work. And when you do the work, you will be back at my first point, which is that you will probably not solve your problem on the first try.
Why is this?
No single source matches your situation 100%
This might seem contradictory. Because I’m saying you should go look for the people who have solved your problem. But often there won’t be anyone who has solved your exact problem under the same circumstances with your same set of skills, budget, time constraints, tools, etc.
And that’s the good part.
Because this is the real magic of learning to figure stuff out on your own. That last 1%, where you take what you’ve learned, apply it to your situation and just try something. That’s where you gain the most valuable currency in the professional world: experience.
So when you find information that mostly matches your situation, but is a little different, don’t freak out. Expect it. Then apply what you’ve learned and take that last leap, the figuring it out part.
This skill gives you freedom and options
With the speed at which technology, markets, and business priorities shift today, becoming an autodidact puts you on a path to having more options for your career. It is also the # 1 skill required for starting your own project.
As I’ve written about before (see the post above), starting your own project is one of the fastest ways to accelerate your professional growth, especially if you are pursuing a new industry or role.
The only parting thought I have on this topic is to become aware of how much you embrace this mindset. Again, I’m not saying you need to never ask for help. But when you do ask for help, start by presenting what you’ve tried already, and where you’ve gone for the answer.
What are your best tips for researching answers to hard problems?
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