Jens Oliver Meiert

3 Great Learning Strategies for Generalists

Post from November 2, 2007 (↻ June 12, 2021), filed under .

“Lifelong learning” sounds like some sort of buzzword but it is necessary to develop and progress, and awesome to master. Mistakes are great, too, as they are accelerating the learning process, and 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.

However, here are three learning strategies and mindsets that not only benefit professionals with rather broad focus. 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 methodology means to me that it is in fact possible to learn 80% of a topic in only 20% of the time. And instead of focusing on just one topic—web development, for example—and investing 100% of my time in it, I instead 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 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 really is far more “expensive” while at the same time not inevitably necessary to learn 100% than 80%. My philosophical and “educated generalist” approach appreciate that, and it pays 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 when you know where you can quickly get reliable 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 the best 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. That stuff exists to bother kids, not professionals. I like to use a “sieve” metaphor here; the better your memory works, the more stuff will get caught.

Training the memory will prevent forgetting too much. Repeating and reiterating the most important things will help with that. So me, 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).

❧ So, learning is fun. What are your thoughts and favorite methods?

Tweet this? (If it changed your life, you delight me with a coffee.)

About Me

Jens Oliver Meiert, on April 29, 2020.

I’m Jens Oliver Meiert, and I’m an engineering manager and author. I’ve worked as a technical lead for Google, I’m close to the W3C and the WHATWG, and I write and review books for O’Reilly. Other than that, I love trying things, sometimes including philosophy, art, and adventure. Here on I share some of my views and experiences.

If you have questions or suggestions about what I write, please leave a comment (if available) or a message.

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 wear 20% of our clothes in 80% of the time, &c.

  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.

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