Know Why You Want To Learn

Have you ever asked yourself, "What am I doing here?" while sitting in a class? I have and almost everyone I know has had that experience. When that happens, it is unlikely that you or I learned much.

Learning and training professionals correctly advocate beginning a course or a class and even each chapter or topic with learning goals. While this is great, such goals actually reflect the design goals, not those of the learner! If you go to a class to learn how to bake wedding cakes, the content on muffins is unlikely to have much appeal.

glass of water and notebook sitting on table

Earlier this year Scott H Young came out with a new book called Ultralearning. The book is about learning quickly and well. I recommend it for anyone who wants to learn anything, from programming in R to Chinese calligraphy. One critical aspect of his process is that learners must decide why they want to learn something: it is difficult to be committed to intense or even casual learning if you have no specific idea why you want to learn it.

When I begin a class of any length, I ask participants to share with me and the rest of the group their motivation for attending the event and learning the content. Years ago, the common answer was "my boss sent me"; today it's "to get such-and-such a certification". But those aren't real reasons. Getting the certification is not a goal in and of itself. The goal may be to keep a job, get promoted, or get a different job altogether. Sometimes the reason is just to learn the material for fun, and that's good, too, but seldom leads to deep understanding.

The why needs to be accompanied by the degree to which you want to learn something. Learning German to be able to read a restaurant menu (and thus be able to enjoy some fantastic food) is different than being able to talk to people on the street or to be fluent enough to take classes at a German university. (You will note that each of those is also a reason to take the class: they go hand-in-hand.) You'll want to include a time component, too, to keep you on track. That means "Learning German to be able to read a restaurant menu" could become "Learning German to be able to read a restaurant menu before my trip to Berlin in six weeks."

In the 1970s I learned to program in C when it was a little-known programming language. There were no classes at the university I was attending, and no web from which to absorb the wisdom of others. A friend and I set out to learn C. He wanted to re-write a program in C and I wanted to use C in a major class project. We had motivation, a copy of The C Programming Language, and access to a computer. We set out working through the book chapter by chapter and doing all the suggested exercises. It worked, and I used and taught C for decades. The primary reason it worked was that I had a goal that I was motivated to complete.

When I decide to take a class, learn from a book or video, or engage a coach, I want to ensure that my learning goals align with those of the chosen method. I urge you to do that with any learning activity including Learning Tree's System and Network Security Introduction Training course that I co-wrote. Look at what the materials claim the class will teach and see if they match what you want to learn. If they, do, you are likely to gain a lot from the course; if not, you may be unhappy with the class.

Learning new things is fun for me, and it will likely be for you if you sit down and really decide why you want to learn something. Then commit to the learning and your efforts will be rewarded.