Learning Gears

The most common question I get when people hear about #LearnInPublic is how to start.

In a sense, this is a Bad Questionβ„’. What worked for me may or may not work for you. I don't know your situation, your interests, nor your skills. This is why the original essay just gives an open ended list of ideas. Being overly prescriptive limits your personal expression, which I hate.

But I understand the desire for more structure. This is a new muscle to develop. Our entire childhoods we've been trained to learn in private. Now you're trying this new thing. It'd be nice to have a map.

In the year since I wrote that essay I've stumbled my way towards some sense of what modes of Learning In Public have had disproportionate effectiveness, some by practicing it myself, some by observing others. I finally feel this is worth sharing, so I'll answer this question I've been avoiding.

Three Gears

I can think of three gears of Learning In Public.

Explorer

Your Explorer gear is your high speed gear. You're just trying to cover as much ground as possible, in many directions.

  • The main problem to solve is that you don't know what you don't know.
  • The creative exhaust you make are mainly notes to self, possibly in terms only you understand, possibly noting problems only you have. This is mostly in gists and blogposts and tweets and (good) StackOverflow questions, because text is cheap to produce, although Twitch streams are also on the rise. You are often laying out literally your entire state of knowledge for a metaphorical rubber duck, looking for holes and documenting for the future.
  • Your public output is episodic - there is no unifying theme - you are just a field correspondent reporting from whatever foreign land you find yourself in. This is still useful, because you can't connect the dots until much later in life.
  • The public commitment level is low, usually doable in one day sprints, so this is a great way to get started Learning In Public and also finding what resonates so you can switch gears. It is easy to fall off the wagon though, because no one's really expecting anything from you, because you haven't committed that much.

Connector

Most people should aim for your Connector gear to be their default. This is a powerful, yet nimble gear. You connect people and ideas.

  • The main problem to solve is that you know things many don't know. Hence you should share that and they need to hear you. That takes a little extra effort.
  • The creative exhaust you make is explicitly meant for others. This means some effort is required that isn't just about your learning, but more about making things easy to digest. Here are the talks, tutorials, cartoons, cheatsheets, books, etc - Higher effort, higher usefulness, longer lasting. You usually arent sharing everything you know, though, so it can feel like you're learning less. However, this is the best way to master fundamentals because you are forced to cover your bases and be able to answer questions you haven't thought to ask.
  • You still dont have a grand theme to your work, but usually you are juggling multiple themes, and also learning and teaching about their intersections.
  • The public commitment is moderate - usually for a few weeks or months - and often involves active exercise of soft skills that you may feel ill equipped for. Check your ego at the door and learn that too. You are "putting yourself out there". But also remember Learning In Public is an art, not a science: always rely on and refine your taste rather than objectively trying to please everyone. Find your people, lean on strengths you always thought were irrelevant for coding.

Examples:

  • samantha ming
  • b0rk
  • lin clark

Miner

Reserve the Miner gear for when you've struck gold. Something that resonates with people, that you are also abnormally fascinated by. When you strike gold, you'll know. Stop and plant your flag.

  • The main problem to solve is that something important is too hard, or the world knows too little about something this important. Therefore you dive deep into something nobody else does.
  • The creative exhaust you make is very specialized - you do research and build community and infrastructure. What you do is meant to last. Before you, the thing was very hard, or impossible. After you, the thing becomes much easier. The world will thank you.
  • You now have one theme that not just unifies your work, but that you become synonymous with. Every person in the world who has the problem you solve, will eventually find you, because that is how the Internet works. (Coincidentally, you no longer need to "put yourself out there", people will come to you.) This might feel boring since you're just about one thing all the time, but what seems like one topic to you today (e.g. Machine Learning) will eventually subdivide into different disciplines when you go deep enough (e.g. Supervised Learning, Unsupervised Learning, Reinforcement Learning).
  • The public commitment is very high - on the order of years and careers. You're digging a mine and spending energy far more than any other sane person is doing - it helps if the area you've chosen has a good chance of widening and deepening at the same time you're mining. So have some form of macro thesis for why this field in general will be increasingly important. (More on this in future writing.)

Examples:

  • Tobias Koppers
  • Jen Simmons
  • Lea Verou
  • Evan You
  • Seb McKenzie

Why Gears

These are "gears" and not "levels" or "modes" because you can step in and out of any gear depending on what kind of terrain you're on and how fast and deep you need to go. (I bike a lot so I just like the analogy of "gears" - I also like the implication that one gear isn't necessarily better or worse than another, it just depends, and also adopting one gear does mean trading off speed or power.)

What do I do now?

If you're just starting to #LearnInPublic, start as an Explorer. Map out whatever you're learning, whatever tickles your fancy. Go as fast as you like, an inch deep and a mile wide.

When you have a good sense of the terrain and see other Explorers you can help, start being a Connector. Link people and ideas, use your full creative talents. Go back and cover gaps in your knowledge.

If you find yourself tripping over gold, start Mining. If it turns out a dud, switch gears. No sweat.

Three gears of learning, all in Public. We're cheering you on.