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Beginner's Mind - On Learning from Back to Front

Posted Jun 16 2009 12:20am

I have excellent news to report -- I finally managed to crack the barrier that's been holding me back from learning new skills I cannot survive without. I don't want to get into all the technical details, because first, folks who are not nerds won't get as much of a charge out of it as I do, and second, if I go into the details, the hard-core nerds out there will probably turn up their noses in disdain at me.

Bottom line is, after years (literally) of telling myself I need to learn this certain skill - and I truly do, in order to stay employed in the world of software engineering - yesterday I was finally able to just sit down and work my way through a first pass at learning and experimenting with this essential new skill and brand of technical know-how.

I'm elated. Ecstatic. Part of me is totally bummed that it's taken me this long. For at least three years, I've been telling myself I need to master this stuff. In fact, if I'd started three years ago, I'd be in a much better position, financially and professionally. But I couldn't do it. I wanted to, but I just couldn't. My brain was newly broken (in 2004) in ways I didn't understand, and my thinking process had altered in ways I didn't realize.

Heck, I didn't even realize that my thinking process was altered... My brain was sufficiently fogged, and I was sufficiently numbed by my constant struggle to just get by, so that any inkling that I may have had about my brain not being fully functional just got lost in the shuffle. And I lost a lot of valuable time, thinking that my brain was working just fine, when it was anything but.

That's spilt milk, tho'.  What I need to focus on, is what I have going for me, what new strategies I've been able to apply from my neuropsychological examination, and what I learned over the past few days about my learning process.

What I have going for me:

  • I'm very strong in verbal comprehension. This tells me that something in my brain must be working right. It also tells me, objectively, that although I do get confused at times, I'm still in possession of some high-level native capabilities. I just need to figure out how to use them.
  • My fund of available knowledge is in a very high percentile. This tells me that I'm able to learn, that I'm able to acquire information and hold onto it. Although my working memory may be compromised from my 2004 fall, I still have a lot of available knowledge still in my head, and I can put it to good use.
  • My ability to connect two different concepts in a meaningful way is also very strong. This tells me that I have the ability to use the information I have, to build on it and turn it into something else. I can make connections and get my head around them.
  • I'm aware of these three distinct strengths. It might not seem like something I'd have going for me, but just being aware of these three aspects takes the pressure off. I have memorized them, committed them to memory, and when I get turned around and stressed, I can just talk myself down and take the pressure off, by reminding myself that I actually do have something going for me. And it's been verified by a qualified professional with a Ph.D.
  • I never, ever quit. For all the crap that can get thrown at me, for all the trouble I can get into, so long as I'm able to just keep going and think of alternatives and just keep at a job till it's done, I'll be fine. Failure isn't the inability to succeed -- it's the inability to complete an undertaking successfully. It's the inability to follow-through until success is achieved... because so long as you keep going, and you keep trying, and you don't give up, you cannot possibly fail. Failure only happens when you stop trying before you succeed.

What new strategies I've been able to apply from my neuropsychological examination:

  • I don't start at the beginning, anymore. One of the things that came out in my neuropsych evaluation is that my working memory is shot. I can read or hear some piece of information one minute, but if I'm distracted or am not thinking intently about it, that new information can be gone-baby-gone in 5-15 seconds.  That doesn't make me happy. I mean, who wants to have the things they hear and read and learn disappear in the blink of an eye? But in thinking things through, I've realized that I can employ other strategies to learn new things, that don't involve starting at the beginning of a lesson and plodding my way through. What I do now -- and what I did to learn this new skill I've been needing -- is find a working model that someone else built, and then work my way backwards, reverse-engineering it to see how it works, and finding out what happens if I do such-and-such. The key is, not starting at the beginning, because if I do, and I work my way systematically through the standard process of knowledge acquisition, I'll just get lost, in the course of a few pages or minutes. The new information just doesn't stick with me. No way, no how. Especially if I'm relying only on my brain to acquire it. But if I start out with something that's already done -- a completed program, in my case -- and I experiment with it and find out what happens when, then I can learn from seeing something in action. And doing the hands-on work teaches me more than any book or instructor could.
  • I give myself permission to start with the advanced stuff, first. In my neuropsych exam, I actually scored higher on the really complex tasks, than I did on the simple ones. The tasks that involved little to no "higher" thought, I failed miserably. But on the tasks that were more challenging, my scores jumped noticeably. I guess my brain is just more interested in challenging stuff, even if I don't fully understand it at the outset. So, when I was working on my new skillset, rather than beginning with the starting steps of online tutorials and trying to get my head around the concepts from the get-go, I cut right to the chase and started building out this new app, using existing code that others had posted. I didn't even worry about understanding every single line and what it all had to do with each other -- I just copied and pasted, put it all together, mixed and matched, and did some stuff that I didn't even understand, but that worked like a charm. It's like I turned off that regular-thinking part of my brain and just went by instinct, and it worked out great. At the beginning of yesterday, I was just a wannabe. But by the end of the day, I acutally had a working prototype of something that has eluded me for years -- and I had gotten the hang of not only one key technology, but two. And I'd gotten comfortable enough with them both to not freak out, if someone were to come to me tomorrow and ask me to code something up in them.
  • I give myself permission to go back to the beginning with things that I've already mastered, and take a second look at best practices. Yesterday evening, after basking for a few hours in the elation over having overcome this three-years-long hurdle, I went back to the drawing board, so to speak, and did some reading on "Beginning Programming". This may sound odd, as I've been a software engineer for over 12 years, and I've done some very high-level work in my day for multinational corporations that control the flow of money in the world. But in those pages, I actually found some really helpful hints about the programming process that I can put to good use. Some of the guidelines will save me hours of hassle, on the next big project I'm working on -- a personal project that I've been wanting to do for quite some time. And I've also been able to clarify some of the concepts that I've been batting around with people for years, without really  knowing what I was talking about. I can't say it out loud here, because some of my gaps are really embarrassing to admit, but suffice it to say that I am at last truly clear on certain concepts that I thought I'd gotten my head around... but hadn't.

What I learned over the past few days about my learning process:

  • I learn backwards. My brain is inclined to seek out the complicated stuff first, work with it, then learn about the theoretical underpinnings at a much later date.
  • I learn instinctively, by trial and error. Books are great for some, but my learning style is very hands-on, very labor-intensive, and prone to total screw-ups.
  • My learning style is very different from other people's. Someone can stand around and instruct me, have me read stuff in a book, and lecture me, but the typical classroom/learning experience is a total waste of time on me.
  • My learning style is not less effective than other people's. If anything, it actually lets me learn quicker, by experience.  Any regret I feel over not being able to learn from books the way I used to, has since evaporated, since I realized that I can actually advance much faster and with much more effectiveness, if I just learn the way I need to learn.
  • It's easier for me to learn from books, if I have some sort of life experience to back up what I read. I really cannot start with books -- I need some sort of association with the information I'm reading. I need to have a context to put it in, some experiential basis with which to understand and fully grasp what I'm reading. Going back to the basics, long after I've mastered some pretty complex approaches, lets me see -- and understand from personal experience -- the point that the author is making, and I can appreciate it more fully from the vantage point of experience. I literally learn backwards, but that doesn't need to be a bad thing. It's actually quite good.
  • The brain injury I sustained in 2004 did damage some of my existing "infrastructure", but it strengthened other parts that are just as capable and valuable -- if not moreso -- than the parts I was using in the past. True, books and brand new instructions are totally lost on me, but I've become more "hard-headed" as a result of my injuries, and that's given me the ability to persevere and prevail and keep on and on and on until I am satisfied with what I've got. I am less afraid of wading into the midst of new information and trying out new things, and I can leverage that boldness to get my hands dirty and really dig into things that "normally" would be considered "more advanced than I can handle." My hard-headedness and my anosognosic streak makes me prone to just forging ahead, damn the torpedoes, and seeing what will happen. Half the time, I'm not even fully aware of my limitations, so the timidity one would expect from a true beginner isn't really there, when it comes to engaging in a new activity. (My timidity is reserved for book lessons and social/classroom situations.) And because I'm working with computers (which don't call me names or treat me badly when I screw up), I always have another chance to make right what I've messed up. I have all the license in the world to actively learn new things and try them out -- in the privacy of my own computing experience.

So, this is very exciting for me. I've accomplished a goal I set for myself back in 2005, and I'm about 200% better-off, employability-wise, than I was just a week ago. I still have a long ways to go before I can say I'm an expert in this stuff, but the fact that I've actually started down this road and I've got a working app that employs multiple technologies that I have recently learned, makes a huge difference not only to my resume and my career prospects, but to my self-regard, as well.

Woo hoo.

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