Meg Adams

Engineering Leader @ Etsy

Handling Overwhelm with Learning Lists

A senior engineer that I deeply respect as a technician (and human!) recently said to me, “I think the hardest part of growing in an engineering career is the feeling that for every concept you learn or become an expert in, you discover twice as many that you know nothing about. That fear — that someone is going to find out about all of your ‘black holes’ of knowledge — is really hard to live with and reason about. It’s difficult to feel good at your job when you’re acutely aware of just how many things you don’t know or understand.”

This feeling of, “OMG, I know nothing! How have I made it this far?! I’m an imposter!” is universal. It is the most common thing I hear in any mentoring or coaching session from young devs and it is one of the most common things I discuss with peers.

If we were rational people, we would consistently remember that we weren’t hired to be experts in everything and that it’s expected that we will learn on the job. But the anxiety of “not knowing” can be crippling for a lot of people (myself included 🙋🏻).

To alleviate that anxiety cloud and help you feel back in control of your knowledge set, I recommend starting a learning list. (I’ve briefly discussed this before as a tool for new devs, but thought it should have its own post since I recommend this practice to SO many people of all skill levels!)

What is a learning list? A learning list is a list of all the technical concepts you don’t know. Every single thing.

Acronym you’ve never heard before? Goes on the list.

New vocabulary you’re unfamiliar with? On the list.

New framework you heard is the next best thing? List.

Technology your favorite blogger just tweeted that you HAVE to learn this year? On the list.

I use WunderList on my phone for my personal index because it’s something I always have nearby. You can use a Google Spreadsheet, a notebook or whatever tool you feel most comfortable sticking to over time and that you will always have handy.

All terms/concepts go on the list every single time they come up as something you “should” know. (Yes, this means repeating things!)

What this is going to do most immediately is free you up of the stress and time you spend halfway diving into something to try to figure it out, with the outcome of only barely understanding a plethora of concepts.

Additionally, it is going to give you data to drive what you choose to learn about deeply that will push your projects and career forward. Even after just a few weeks (though I find a few months to be the sweet spot), you will have a list of items that can be prioritized. See the same concept coming up again and again? It should probably be something you bump to the top and dedicate focused time to learn about and totally understand. See something that only came up once and seemed important and on-trend at the time but you haven’t heard anything about since? Probably something you can push to the bottom of the list (and maybe never think about again). Have a meeting with your manager where she recommends learning X thing? Open your list, share with her what you are working on currently and ask if X thing is more important to jump into than what you’re already doing.

If you use up all your time letting outside forces dictate what you learn about and what Google deep dives you go on, you are totally out of control. Getting the data of what matters and making informed decisions of how to better yourself puts you back in the driver’s seat.

In the moment, it’s hard to know what technical concepts matter for your career and what don’t. If you don’t understand something, how can you know its value? By removing the optionality to have to try to make that call, you remove a reactionary stress response and can instead behave with intention. Intention like proactively learning important concepts, prioritizing a certain side project or requesting to be put on specific projects at work that will help you excel in a direction you actually want to be going in.

I would love to hear from you! What‘s on your learning list right now? Comment and share below!

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