May 10, 2017

You don’t need to know everything

How do you decide what to learn next?

I recently received this email from a subscriber:

“Hey Femke. I’m overwhelmed by the vast number of tools, skill sets and knowledge required to remain prevalent in the web industry. It can be really difficult to strike a learning balance between design and development. How can I manage my projects effectively so that I can get the most of growing in both design and development?”

– Lloyd

Throughout my time at school I always assumed the learning in life would stop as soon as I graduate. Learning was for classrooms, life was for freedom. After graduation, it didn’t take me long to realise my assumption was wrong.

Since graduation my learning has only increased, in most cases exponentially. In the two years since finishing school I’ve taken two online courses, countless Treehouse lessons to learn how to code and have attended numerous conferences, meetups and webinars.

Learning is an asset. In our industry especially, things are always changing and evolving. There’s new techniques, frameworks, workflows, trends or styles that emerge from the woodwork. Often it can feel quite overwhelming to keep up with the latest. There’s that constant pressure to stay relevant and informed.

With this constant flow of new material emerging it can be difficult to know where to start. Which coding language is best to learn first? Which new design tool should I be familiar with? What new techniques are there to improve my workflow? 

Juggling this can be a full time job, and if you’re trying to grow in two different areas (like Lloyd is), it can be a challenge to keep them balanced.

I used to feel like I had to know everything to be good at what I did. However, knowing everything means you can’t become an expert in anything. Instead, I learn whatever it is that I need to help me move from A to B. If I want to improve my communication with my clients I learn about client communication. If I want to improve my skills at writing I read a book about writing, and so on.

There will always be some Hot New Tool for Designers™ or Best New Framework every Developer Needs™! It doesn’t mean it’s worth learning about. 

Focus on learning what you really need. Not what the industry is telling you you need.

It’s likely you’ll find yourself in situations where you’re frustrated you can’t do something. You’ll realise that you’ve reached the plateau of your knowledge and begin to depend on others to help. For me that plateau was not being able to build my designs. I would have to rely on others to make my design a reality. I realised there was an opportunity for me to fill that knowledge gap and began to see the value in being able to build my designs myself. So I started taking web development lessons.

Perhaps you too have an ultimate goal you’re trying to achieve but lack the skills to get there. Identify where there’s gaps in your knowledge and start taking baby steps towards filling them.

If your focus is on building your own website but you lack the skills to do so, learn how to do that. While it may temporarily lean you towards web development, that doesn’t degrade your other skills. You don’t become less of a designer because you invested some time focusing on development and vice versa. Learn whatever you need to help you move forward. In fact, design & development are a great example of two skill that intertwine with one another. Learning more about one can only do good for the other.

I decided two years ago that my ultimate goal is to work full time for myself. While I’m not close yet and still have a loooong way to go, I’ve taken baby steps towards learning things that will help me achieve it. I’ve read books, listened to podcasts, built relationships with people and taken business courses. Each learning is slowly moving me closer towards that goal.

There’s often a lot of pressure to know everything and so we rush into learning multiple things at once, just to catch up. But there’s a huge benefit to learning one thing at a time. 

Focusing on small, incremental learnings allows you to give it your full attention. You then have the ability to learn it in depth, providing you with the confidence and skills necessary to move on to the next step.

Learning requires you to make time for it. You’ll need to take a step back from something else in order to create that time. 

We’re used to learning in the form of sitting down for dedicated and focused blocks of time — but it doesn’t have to be. Unlike formal education, learning can be bitesized. Instead of disrupting your commitments to make time for learning, build learning into your existing routine. 

For example if you enjoy reading before bed, read a book about Prototyping instead of a novel. If you listen to music on your commute, switch that up to an insightful podcast. Watch YouTube on your lunch break? Watch coding lessons instead.

Ultimately, you don’t need to know everything. Learn whatever is relevant not only to your industry, but to your goals.

If you’re struggling with maintaining a balance between learning two different skills, relate back to your goal. What are you trying to achieve and what do you need to learn to help you get there? That’s what you should focus on.

If I’m looking to get my bike fixed I’m far more likely to trust someone with dedicated experience in fixing bikes over someone who fixes bikes, cars, boats and trucks. The jack of all trades doesn’t always come out on top – you don’t need to learn everything.

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