Zack Thoutt

@zthoutt

9 ways to accelerate your learning and stay on the bleeding edge

1. Don’t base your educational decisions on how you think they will benefit you

Back in June I decided to take Udacity’s Deep Learning Foundations Nanodgree. In that Nanodegree we created a model that could generate T.V. scripts for The Simpsons.

One day after work I was inspired to modify this project to generate text for Game of Thrones instead of The Simpsons. I shared my Game of Thrones project, which a freelance journalist saw on Reddit. He asked if he could interview me and write an article. His article was quickly published by Vice, which was shared tens of thousands of times and republished on a few hundred news outlets around the world.

Since my project went viral I‘ve gotten to write for several popular blogs, do numerous additional interviews, be a guest on NVIDIA’s AI Podcast, consult for Moody’s, and be headhunted by a recruiter at Google.

The point is, I never could have predicted this result from taking Udacity’s course — I actually decided to take the course because I have upcoming projects at my work that I want to apply deep learning to — but this is a great example of how education actually benefits you. Most people base their educational decisions on a concrete goal, such as getting a raise or promotion in the short-term, but I’ve realized that things rarely work out how you plan them.

“Learning is a treasure that will follow its owner everywhere.”
 — Chinese Proverb

You can either over-educate yourself and look back on your unpredictable journey with pleasant surprise, or you can struggle down the predictable path to a dead end. You will never regret acquiring skills and you never know when or how they will benefit you.

2. Spend 90% of your time doing active learning

I’m a firm believer that you can’t learn without doing. You can read all about how to build a website, train a neural network, or fix a car, but the only way to actually learn those skills is to start doing.

Let’s face it, doing things is harder than reading about doing things. That’s what makes it valuable though. Most people want to learn how to do things, but they have trouble forcing themselves to put the time and effort into learning how to do them.

You will give yourself a significant edge over your competition if you can muster the willpower to spend 90% of your free-time actively learning things.

“Being a student is easy. Learning requires actual work.”
 — William Crawford

When I applied to college I entered with a 2.75 high school GPA and was rejected from my top choice; I ended college at my top choice and graduated with a 4.0 GPA and an engineering degree. Two and a half years ago I had never written a line of code and today I’m employed as a Sr. Full-Stack Developer. At the start of Summer 2017 I had never created a deep learning model and by the end of it my Game of Thrones AI went viral.

People always ask me how I learn so quickly and get so much done. They usually assume I’m just really smart and that it’s a talent you have to be born with, but I firmly believe that’s not true. I’m not smarter than my average peer. I learn fast and get a lot done because I have the willpower to concentrate and work through problems. I will bang my head against a problem for hours until I figure it out while most people will give up in a matter of minutes and go out with friends instead.

Learning is hard for everyone. The only way to overcome the many obstacles of learning is to prioritize time for it and to have the willpower to see things through even when you feel helplessly stuck.

3. Spend 10% of your time doing passive learning

Active learning is the bee’s knees, but doing some passive learning is also important. You won’t know what you should be actively learning if you don’t spend some of your time exploring what’s out there. The trick is to avoid the pitfall of endlessly scrolling through feeds and skimming blog posts. You should quickly hone in on a few things that are interesting and then switch your focus to actively learning them.

4. Don’t be afraid to fail

This is probably my top life lesson, but it also applies to educating yourself. I see a lot of people avoid trying to learn things because they’re worried they will fail or it will be too hard. If you live your entire life worried about failing, you won’t get far. Pick whatever is most interesting to you and go after it knowing that there will be struggles, it’s the same for everyone. The difference between the people who master complex skills and those who don’t is less about ability and more about the courage to try and the will to stick with it when the going gets tough.

“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” — Winston Churchill

5. Use all of the free content out there

There is more free, easily accessible information available than ever before, so get out there and start learning. I’m a self-taught programmer and have learned almost everything I know about web development, software engineering, and machine learning from free content online. Find tutorials, blog posts, etc. and spend time actively learning how to replicate them.

6. Some of the best knowledge isn’t free

While there’s a lot of great, free learning content out there, you should still be willing to spend money on your education when warranted. You might need help with your learning — whether that’s in the form of a University, an online provider like Udacity, or a consultant — and sometimes that means paying.

“If you think education is expensive, try estimating the cost of ignorance.”
 — Howard Gardner

I’ve found that any education you give yourself and followthrough with easily pays back several orders of magnitude of the cost. If you really want to learn something, you should accept that you might have to spend money to get where you want to go.

I think this is especially true with bleeding edge technology. If you’re learning the basics that have been explained and rehashed a thousand time, then you can probably get by with the free content online. If you want to become an expert at something more cutting edge, there will be far less learning materials out there.

It’s almost always better to pay for some help when you get stuck than to give up. You have to be willing to put some skin in the game if continued learning is a priority to you.

7. Add breadth to your education, not just depth

Becoming an absolute expert at something is great, but you should also try to add breadth to your tool belt. A lot of great inventions have been the result of a person or group of people with a unique skillset coming together to build something. In fact, one of the biggest challenges a lot of technology companies face when developing software is educating their engineers, designers, marketers, etc. on the domain knowledge of their business.

Again, don’t base the breadth of your education on how you think it will benefit you, learn what’s most interesting to you and what you’re passionate about and opportunities that leverage your unique set of skills will find you.

8. Read one research paper per week

This is one of my favorite new habits. I keep a queue of research articles I find interesting and each weekend I make a point of sitting down one morning and reading through an entire paper. This is a great way to stay on the bleeding edge of technology because most innovations and tech applications in industry are influenced by research.

9. Write about what you learn and post it online

One of the best ways to reinforce learning is to teach other people. If you understand the content well enough to write a short summary while also being able to elaborate on details if people have questions, you probably have a pretty good grasp of the material.

“The teacher is always the one who learns the most”— Unknown

I’ll admit that this can take some time and I’ve only gotten myself to do it once in the month since I started reading one research paper per week, but when I explained Creative Adversarial Networks (CANs) in a Medium post it made me go back to the paper and learn the gaps in my understanding that I didn’t realize were there. Writing about what you learn and posting it online also benefits our community by making bleeding edge technology more approachable and consumable.

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I’m currently on a quest to discover how to create side projects that generate passive income. If you want to stay up-to-date with my writing, ideas, and projects, you can find more info and links to all of my social channels on my personal website:

zackthoutt.com

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