Pick Up What They Put Down

The Ultimate Hack for Learning In Public

Translations welcome! (Português)

A fully expanded and revised version is available in The Coding Career Handbook!

Let’s say you’re sold on the idea of Learning In Public.

You want to start right away but are feeling intimidated at all the advice out there:

  • “Hey read my blogpost on Learning Gears!” lol typical me being too abstract 😛
  • “Just start a blog for the past you!” but you’ve done that before - and no one read it - and you lost interest.
  • “Ask people what they want to read!” but you don’t have people to ask, and people always say yes to free content anyway. Which you write and they then don’t read. So you lose interest.
  • “Don’t worry it takes a while to get an audience!” but all the people telling you that are unrelatable because they’re already successful in your eyes, so you lose interest.

You’re not alone.

In the past 2 years I’ve talked to a couple hundred people at various stages of their #LearnInPublic journey, and of course I went thru it myself. It’s still too hard to start, no matter how many well-intentioned voices tell you what they do and how they did it.

I think, like any new habit or diet, the best plan for you is the plan you can stick to.

After doing a lot of thinking, I have a hack for you. It is 6 words long:

Pick Up What They Put Down

Who’s “they”? Anyone you look up to, anyone who knows more than you in the thing you’re trying to learn. If that’s still too broad for you: Look for the maintainers of libraries and languages you use, or the people who put out YouTube videos, podcasts, books, blogposts and courses.

What do you mean by “put down”? Any new library, demo, video, podcast, book, blogpost, or course that they put out. It is important that it be new. By virtue of it being new, it is simultaneously at the top of their minds, and also the most likely to lack genuine feedback.

(Psst… This is where you come in!)

How do I pick “it” up? Here is a nonexhaustive smattering of ideas for you:

  • If it’s a new library, go try it out. Report bugs, ask questions about ANY confusing documentation, make a demo using the library, then blog about it!
  • If it’s a new demo, go read the source code! Then write a walkthrough of the source code explaining everything in your own words.
  • If it’s a new video/talk/podcast/book/blogpost, summarize it in your own words.
  • If it’s a new course, go through it, highlight the top 3 things you learned.
  • Sketch notes for literally anything are always LOVED.
  • Tan Li Hau literally became a Svelte maintainer by picking up TODO’s in the Svelte codebase
  • come up with your own ideas, I’m not the boss of you

The BIG requirement about any of the above is that you MUST genuinely love/be excited about the thing you’re picking up. If you don’t love it, move on quietly. You don’t want to build a brand of shitting on things people put out.

You must also close the loop - when you have produced anything (e.g. a blogpost) based on their work, tag the creator in social media. Twitter is inherently designed for this, but you can also reply in a comment or email it to them with a nice note.

What happens when you do this?

There is a VERY high chance that you will get feedback on your blogpost or demo or tweet or whatever, directly from them. A retweet and/or follow back is common, especially on repeated interaction where you prove yourself an eager, earnest learner.

If you try your very best to understand the topic, AND you still get something wrong, you will be corrected. If you keep your ego small, you will handle it. In fact, being wrong in public will be your biggest source of personal growth.

Why does this work on them?

Simple: not enough people do it. That’s why this is a hack.

Activity on the Internet has an insane Zipf’s law distribution. This is sometimes called the ”one percent rule” - 90% of people passively view content, 9% comment on content, 1% create. I would endorse this but for the fact that it is HUGELY wrong:

  • I help moderate a subreddit with ~300k monthly unique visitors - charitably, about 2k of them actually comment, and say 100 people consistently submit content.
  • I get 2-3m tweet impressions a month, but only about 1-2k mentions/replies.
  • Pick any YouTube video you care about. Look at the view count, and look at the number of comments.

Basically, the correct number of passive consumption is closer to 99%, and less than 1% even comment on newly created content. I’m not exaggerating in the least.

Cesar Kuriyama randomly tweeted at Jon Favreau about something he made that didnt get picked up. Jon ended up writing Cesar’s app into his classic movie, Chef.

In short, people are lazy. This also means you can get ahead via strategic nonlaziness.

What’s the strategy? Say it with me: PICK UP WHAT THEY PUT DOWN.

There is a dire lack of feedback everywhere. Yes, there are industry superstars with inboxes too hot to respond to. You will get ignored. But even they go out of their way to respond to some feedback. And we already established there aren’t too much of those.

On Twitter in particular, people can be shy promoting their own work. But if someone else on the Internet says nice things about their work, well, shit, they can RT that all day long.

Why does this work on -you-?

Feedback, feedback, feedback. You lose interest when you get no feedback. What we all crave to keep going is feedback that we’re doing something wrong, or right, anything to prime the next action we take. The fact that we don’t know what the feedback will be makes it a “variable reward” - which is human catnip for forming a new habit.

Read Nir Eyal’s Hooked model for more explanation, but basically we are setting up:

  • Trigger: Something new was created
  • Action: “Pick it up” a.k.a you create some piece of content based on the new thing
  • Variable Reward: You get feedback or endorsement or criticism from the creator
  • Investment: You respond to, or internalize, the feedback so you get better the next time around. (aka “learning”)

Your call to action

Tis the season of launching things. In the next month, dozens of cool new libraries and demos and talks and podcasts and courses will be released, on things that you want to learn.

Pick 3 that interest you and “pick up” on them.

I virtually guarantee you get feedback on at least one. If you don’t aim too high, you will go 3 for 3.

Do this 12 times.

You will end the year having learned a good deal and having made many new friends along the way. Including me… if you (ahem) tag me 😉


Tagged in: #advice #learn in public #principles

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