When it comes to learning something new, I’m somehow committed to a rationalist imagination. Probably because of the maths education I had to endure at a young age, I think of understanding a topic – a new programming language, a mathematical topic, a business domain – as gathering a set of facts and and a set of rules about moving those facts around, memorizing more rules and facts as one gets more proficient. Recently, however, I’m amazed at how much better physical analogies fit the process of learning, especially if it concerns knowledge put to use. If you’re memorizing a dictionary because you’ll be quizzed on the exact definition of words, you’re supposed to replicate a computer anyway. But if that knowledge should be used to solve a problem, or produce more of the same kind of knowledge, other ways of looking at it are much more interesting.
One of these alternative analogies is accommodating. This is something the human body is incredibly good at; one could pretty much say that we are built to accommodate. It is astonishing how quickly and optimally our body adapts to the various demands we put on it. When you start a certain kind of exercise (running, let’s say), it feels like fighting through a new kind of torture – especially if you haven’t done any exercise earlier. Your body tells you that you’re not built for this kind of thing, that you’re too old for this shit. As you fight your way through, however – like when you fight through pages of tutorials or explanations – you change to become natural at the new challenge, internalizing the demands in the form of the changes to the apparatus they bring: Stronger muscles, better coordination, better overall shape and endurance. At some point, you are a natural born runner; when you don’t go running you miss it, you’re not exhausted afterwards, and the body recovers itself much faster. Also, when you go on a run, you know instinctively how the flow is going to be like; you don’t think of the 30 minutes it takes to run 5 kilometers in terms of minutes, but as the warming up, the flat tempo in the middle, and the rundown at the end. While running, you don’t think about the fact that you’re out of breath, and that you have to slow down; you do it naturally. Running turns into one of all the regular activities which require a rhythmic concentration, instead of the laborious chore at the beginning.
Accommodating is a good analogy for learning something new, but how it feels once one is in there is a different thing, especially when it’s not a repetitive activity. Most of my friends and colleagues search for novel solutions to mildly new problems in their professional life, using the same tools with some variation – such as building software. In such craft-work, you can’t rely on a prestudied course of action, as in running a path you run every second day. What such work resembles more is navigating a city whose plan and traffic you learn through time and practice. You start with the wide streets and busy arteries, and move on, with more experience, to the shadier side streets and footpaths. When you’re in a new city, you use a map to walk on the clearest path, through the best-marked and widest streets. As you learn your way around, you start taking risks, wandering into the side streets. You can take these risks because in the worst case, you can follow your way back onto the used and secure path.
What so much resembles understanding a field or topic in navigation is how the unmapped *features* of a city turn into means as they become used as such; a path through the park becomes a part of your way to work although it is not on any maps, the entry way of a building become the shortcut connection of two streets. As you learn such tricks, navigation becomes an act of improvisation. Depending on the concrete given situation, what is a path and what is not turns into a fluid distinction. Going from A to B does not require a precise roadmap anymore; it is rather a negotation between a general sense of direction and the imminent choices of interpretation.
What I really like about these ways of thinking about learning (or rather engaging) a topic is that they show light at the end of the tunnel. Feeling pain is OK; it means that your metabolism is accommodating, changing to fit the new challenge. Getting lost is a big part of getting to know a city; it gives the chance to interpret things anew, and if you’re totally lost, maps are always there. All things considered, being a runner lost in a city is much better than being a reader, hunched over an endless stack of books in a dark corner of the library.