I thought I knew how to “learn”, and that I cracked the secret code to grasp any topic that interested me, but this is far from the truth. Recently, I stumbled across a mental revelation, realizing that there are two very distinct methods of learning and each has its place. 

There are two types of learning in this world, theoretical and practical. The theory centers around learning abstract ideas, which I’ve associated with reading research papers, books, blogs, and listening to lectures/podcasts. Over the years I’ve grown confident in learning theory, but I’ve unknowingly drifted further and further away from learning practice. 

By leaning into theory and neglecting practice, my ability to learn through practice has weakened to the point where I avoid that approach. Learning through practice is a painful activity for me.

The knowledge I’ve accumulated over the years is commonly served on a silver platter, while the person serving this idea has already gone through the “mental cycles”. Now, I’m basically a baby being fed different ideas, without ever really thinking for myself or coming to a similar conclusion from my own first principles. This is not ok. 

This revelation has prompted me to lean the opposite way for one very specific reason, which is the ability to embrace the process of thinking. The brains I admire are built over decades and thousands of “mental cycles”. 

  • Mental cycle – My definition of a mental cycle is when someone pauses to think through a problem, breaking it down to its core components, then tinkering with this problem, until they’ve come up with a satisfying solution. 

This is not to say learning theory is wrong, but too much of anything brings negative consequences, and right now, for me, my ability to run through a “mental cycle” is non-existent. 

Directing my “mental cycles” 

After coming to this realization through a morning journaling session I decided to pull together a series of topics I plan on learning through practice and minimal theory. These are topics I’ve wrestled with in the past (e.g. programming), but failed due to my avoidance of learning through practice, plus a few others that interest me today. 

These topics are… 

  • DevOps
  • Application Security 
  • Machine Learning
  • Programming (computing more broadly)

As you can see each of these topics could take a lifetime to become an expert, but my goal is not to be an expert, my goal is to learn a little of each through practice. 

There are two reasons I decided to pursue the above topics… 

  • Interest – The first and most important reason is that I’m genuinely interested and have been learning the theory for the past 3 years. My hope here is that having an interest in the topic will help me through the initial painful “mental cycles” of learning through practice.   
  • Future-proofing – The second reason is more superficial but practical. Adulting is hard, especially when you’re not born into money and I know money’s not everything, but it sure does provide space to think and not worry about bills. I’m not sure if you noticed, but there are a small number of skills that are in high demand currently, so if you possess those skills you’re the “belle of the ball”. My hypothesis is that if I’m able to become semi-proficient in each of the above topics, then I’ll be moving closer to a more “secure” future.
  • AI overlord caveat – Once all our jobs are automated away and the only thing that differentiates us from our robot overlords is philosophy and literature, then I’ll shift my focus. P.S. could be sooner than we think or further away… Who knows! 

Yes, the choice of these topics is probably flawed… Yes, I realize you have a different perspective on the topics I should focus on learning, but… This plan is all about the “process” (mental cycles), not the “outcome” (topics above). 

Remember, the main goal here is to build mental muscles through “mental cycles”, which will turn into a process I embrace, not avoid. 

Planning for the pain ahead

One question I asked myself when coming to this realization, is “Why is it painful to learn through practice?”. The simple, but hard truth is that learning through practice takes a lot of mental energy and failure, which is foreign to theory-heavy learners. 

Learning through practice is the path of most resistance, not least resistance, and it’s typically taken by those at the cutting edge of a field with no choice or from the people that love to tinker. I’m nowhere near the cutting edge, so tinkering it is. 

There are many hurdles I will run up against, some of which I’m experiencing right now such as… 

  • Frustration – Being a person that’s mainly learned through the silver platter of theory, I’ve never really had to struggle too much through a topic, but abstract understanding is useless when applying this idea to a practical problem. Learning through practice means you’re building your knowledge through practical problems and that can lead to constant discomfort due to each problem being new/foreign. This pain is where the mental cycles reside, so leaning into the pain is my approach. I see this pain evolving through three phases – avoid (now), accept, and pursue. The minds I admire are always hunting for the next problem or complex idea they can run their mental cycles over.
  • Embarrassment– Learning strictly through theory has given me (and many of you) false confidence in our abilities to learn. The humbling nature of learning through practice can be a shock to the ego, which is never a good feeling. Honestly, I’ve run into this shocking experience a few times and I’m just starting this journey, but the more mental cycles I run through the easier it gets. 
  • Ignorance – Applying an idea to a practical problem truly tests one’s understanding of a subject. If you’re even slightly uncertain about what to do, everything breaks and there’s a very tight feedback loop, which is actually a beautiful tool for learning. Even though tight feedback loops are great for improving one’s understanding, it also magnifies every little detail you’re not aware of or forgot.  
  • And many more… 

Now, enough chit-chat, let the “mental cycle” games begin!