3 Great Learning Strategies for Generalists

Published on November 2, 2007 (↻ February 5, 2024), filed under (RSS feed for all categories).

“Lifelong learning” sounds like some sort of buzzword, but it’s necessary to develop and progress, and awesome to cultivate. Mistakes are great, too, as they are accelerating the learning process. This needs to be kept in mind especially in times in which people tend to be more and more unforgiving: As long as you learn from them, mistakes are okay.

I believe there are three learning strategies and mindsets that not only benefit generalists. They’ve proved invaluable to me.

1. Use the Pareto or 80/20 Rule

(…which asserts that “80% of the effects comes from 20% of the causes.”)

Applying the Pareto principle to learning to me means that it’s possible to learn 80% of a topic in only 20% of the time. And therefore, instead of focusing on just one topic—web development, for example—and investing 100% of my time in it, I focus on several topics. I accept that in order to acquire “100%” of the knowledge for a specific topic, I probably need to invest all of my time, but focus on five topics, for example, allows me to acquire 5 × 80% knowledge.

I don’t claim that this really means four times more knowledge than somebody who just learns about one topic, but it is more “expensive” (while at the same time not inevitably necessary) to learn 100% than 80%. As a generalist, I appreciate this, and believe it to pay off.

2. Pick the Greatest Masters and Materials Available

You can enormously accelerate the learning process by choosing your teachers and material wisely, and this strategy helps to compensate drawbacks of the Pareto rule approach: If there’s something you don’t know, it helps to know where you can get high-quality information.

This method always kept me away from fora. I learned HTML and CSS by “learning by doing” first, but went relatively straight to the W3C and to read specifications; I learned information design basics by reading Tufte; I learned usability basics by reading Nielsen; I learned much about accessibility by hanging out on W3C lists and reading Joe Clark. There are so many more sources and so much more practice to be involved, but focus on experts and excellent literature avoids wasting time.

3. Do Not Try to Remember Everything—Reiterate Instead

Assuming a functioning memory, there’s no need to try to remember every detail you ever read and learn about, so don’t spend too much time memorizing. Rote learning exists to entertain kids, not professionals. I like to use a “sieve” metaphor here; the better your memory works (the finer the sieve), the more stuff is being caught.

Training memory prevents forgetting overly much. Repeating and reiterating the most important things helps with that. Personally, I read the very best books twice, at least, I check the best bookmarks more than once, too, and I regularly call in mind important or interesting facts and mnemonics (this very moment, for example, I recalled Helitzer’s THREES formula for humor—Target, Hostility, Realism, Exaggeration, Emotion, Surprise).

❧ Learning is important, useful, fun. What are your thoughts and favorite methods?

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About Me

Jens Oliver Meiert, on September 30, 2021.

I’m Jens (long: Jens Oliver Meiert), and I’m a frontend engineering leader and tech author/publisher. I’ve worked as a technical lead for companies like Google and as an engineering manager for companies like Miro, I’m close to W3C and WHATWG, and I write and review books for O’Reilly and Frontend Dogma.

I love trying things, not only in web development (and engineering management), but also in other areas like philosophy. Here on meiert.com I share some of my views and experiences.

If you want to do me a favor, interpret charitably (I speak three languages, and they can collide), yet be critical and give feedback for me to learn and improve. Thank you!

Comments (Closed)

  1. On November 6, 2007, 16:25 CET, Richard Morton said:

    I think that we tend towards doing this naturally anyway. For example, my knowledge of Microsoft Word is probably only 20% of what was available in Word 95 and yet it still gives me 80% of what I need to use in Word 2003 or beyond.

  2. On November 12, 2007, 10:21 CET, Jens Oliver Meiert said:

    Richard, indeed, the Pareto rule can be observed elsewhere, too… like, we might even wear 20% of our clothes in 80% of the time!

  3. On March 12, 2008, 10:04 CET, Wolle said:

    Good Article, Jens
    To Point 1) in German we say: “Mut zur Lücke”, it means “Courage to the gap”.
    To Point 2) Sometimes you need verry much luck to get the best.

  4. On March 20, 2008, 8:00 CET, Iris said:

    It is also important to practices your memory every day, to read a book and to talk with real people, not only over icq.

  5. On April 11, 2008, 4:32 CEST, seektan said:

    this days i read your blog ,and get lots, after that i post a article about your posts of Learning. hope it’s not offend you.
    my post: Jens Meiert 关于学习

  6. On September 30, 2009, 23:47 CEST, dj said:

    “Pick the best masters and material available” - How do you pick them?

    I try to go to the source, like you mentioned the W3. I stay away from Amazon reviews. Books in general are hit and miss, and there is way too much padding. Padding wastes time.