AMA: How Do You “Keep Up?”

Bryan asks:

What’s your approach on learning new technology or new capabilities in an existing technology?

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Ugh. I get asked this question a lot, and I’m always afraid to answer it. But… I promised. So here it is: I already know everything. 
You know, I really had to sit and think about this. I mean, it’s not a new question, but I’m not sure I’ve ever really thought about a good answer. So let’s just kind of stream-of-consciousness this and see what comes out.
I’m a reader. I’m not a video-watcher; I like to read. I’m a good researcher – I can strike what is for me, a good balance between focused reading and following threads. So when I need to learn something – anything – that’s where I start. I’m decent at triage, which means if I’m in some document I can usually figure out pretty rapidly if it’s going to help me or not.
As I’ve mentioned in Be the MasterI synthesize quickly. Oversimplified, synthesizing means taking some facts you already know, adding another, and then arriving at some number of additional facts by combining the previous ones. That makes learning faster, because you don’t have to confront each fact on its own – you can “learn” some by learning their friends. I know some of this is innate talent, because I’ve met people who are really good at it, but I know for me a lot of it was some fairly specialized teaching I had as a kid.
In a lot of areas, I get the same boost everyone else does. The more familiar you are with a topic, the easier it is to learn new things about that topic. When I teach, my goal isn’t to teach everything I know; it’s to teach you enough that you can start to consume source material, like manufacturer documentation, rather than having to have someone like me repackage that information for you. That same trick – learning enough to be able to use source material – helps me learn a lot faster.
I try to be very conscious of why I’m learning. Although I absolutely do sometimes ingest facts for the fun of it (Wikipedia’s “Random Article” link is awesome), if I’m learning something for a reason, I get very focused on that need. That, in turn, dictates how I’ll go about the learning. I’ll tend to skim a document first and decide if it seems like it’s pointing in the direction I need to go; I won’t just read it straight through in a hope it’s what I need. The minute things start veering away from addressing my need, I stop and look elsewhere. This definitely helps me learn, because I’m not focused on tangents. I may make notes of things I want to come back and pursue later, but I don’t let myself get distracted.
Otherwise, I don’t take notes much. I may rewrite some of what I’m learning into my own, often-more-concise terms, but I don’t like note-taking. I actually have a bit of a weird bias against people who take notes – I’ve met too many who write stuff down and never actually learn it. It creeps me out. I’m working on that. For whatever reason, though, I know my brain doesn’t work well with traditional note-taking, so I don’t do it. (That reason is probably that I was too lazy to take notes as a kid, and so my brain never learned to operate from them.)
At some point I will usually experiment with whatever it is I’m learning. Set up a computer lab or whatever. That tends to be very focused and need-oriented, too. I won’t often just “play around;” I’ll have a goal, and I’ll work very firmly toward it.
Dunno if any of that helps ;).

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