You Don’t Need To Learn Each And Every New Thing

Does the rapid pace of change in web design and development concern you? Do you sometimes feel like you’re far behind everyone else? Do you ever worry how you’ll keep up and what might happen to your career if you don’t?


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With so much to learn what do you do?

Concerns with Never Ending Learning Curves

Earlier this month, Ed Finkler, writing for The Pastry Box, published the article, The Developer’s Dystopian Future. Ed feels overwhelmed with the pace of change in web technologies. As he’s gotten older his patience for learning curves has grown smaller. He’s concerned about his future as a web developer, given he’s not as interested in keeping up with new technologies as he used to be.

Both Marco Arment and Matt Gemmell followed up on Ed’s article. Both agree with the sentimant of Ed’s article and add some of their own thoughts to it.

Anyone working on the web has to deal with frequent changes. It seems like every week there’s a new, better technology with another learning curve to get through. What do you do? Do you try to learn all those new and better things? How much time do you spend each week traversing one learning curve or another?

Like Ed, do you worry what will happen if you get tired of trying to learn so many new things and no longer wish to keep up?

Sturgeon’s Law

Let me first remind you about or fill you in on Sturgeon’s Law. Sturgeon’s Law says that 90% of everything is crap. On the surface that seems like a harsh condemnation, but I don’t think it’s as bad as it seems.

If 90% of everything is crap, then 10% must be good. So there’s worthwhile information out there. The thing is, it’s up to you to find that 10% and that requires a fair amount of effort on your part.

Sturgeon’s law wasn’t meant this way, but to me it’s not really about most of everything being crap. Rather it’s about there being good stuff out there and there’s a need for each of us to find what’s good.

Keep in mind that the 10% that’s good is probably different for different people. For example here in the United States mixed martial arts (MMA) is growing in popularity as a sport. I have no interest. I’m not a fan of MMA and to me everything associated with it is pretty much crap. That’s to me. Clearly not everyone feels the same way and it’s always possible my feelings about MMA could change in a year or two.

90% of everything may be crap, but it’s up to you to choose which 90% and by consequence, which 10% is worthwhile and valuable to you. Information is plentiful in the digital age, but the good isn’t always easy to uncover.

Brad Frost has possibly done Sturgeon one better with his recent talk titled, Death to Bullshit. The idea is similar to Sturgeon’s Law and if you haven’t seen Brad’s presentation before here are a couple of versions of it.

No One Can Learn Everything

The point for mentioning Sturgeon is to realize you don’t need to learn everything you hear about or even attempt to try. If Sturgeon is right, most of it’s crap anyway. It might not feel that way when so many people are talking about the latest and greatest technology, but you really don’t need to jump into everything.

The majority of the new will fade away and be nothing you have to worry about. People develop new techniques all the time. Some are stop gaps until something else comes along. Some don’t work as well as hoped. Some solve problems you don’t have. There will be a few important things that will rise about the rest and remain. These are the things you probably should learn, though you have more time than you think to learn them.

You have to realize that no one can learn everything. Even those people who seem like they know everything, really know very little of all there is to know.

Realize too that one reason you always hear so much about new techniques and technologies is because websites need to fill themselves with content. It’s hard to come up with article ideas once a week, let alone multiple times daily.

The people behind the new techniques or libraries are usually interested in marketing them. They might call in favors and pay for reviews. It’s hardly an accident that everyone starts talking about something new at the same time. I know I’ve been pitched to mention something and then find every other blog in my feed reader suddenly posting about that very same thing,

And let’s face it, once something is out there, the internet is a great tool for parroting information and republishing it.

How to Choose What to Learn

Unless you have a specific reason for working with something new, it’s ok to wait and let others sort it out a bit. There are plenty of things I never bothered to learn, because I had no need. Most of them disappeared in favor of something else before I ever did.

Learn things on a need to know basis. If something would help with a project you’re working on, or about to work on, go ahead and learn it. Learn things you think will help future projects or the future of your career. However, if you don’t see a practical side to something, it’s ok to hold off learning it until such a time when you do see the practical side.

Identify themes in the new. You’ll find lots of new things are similar to each other. Sass and Less for example. They essentially do the same thing. They have different ways of going about it, but essentially they do the same thing. If you think it’s important to learn a css preprocessor than pick Sass or Less and learn it, but realize you don’t have to then rush out to learn the other. You can always learn it later.

A third way to choose what to learn is to base it on your interests. Base your choice on the things you want to do.

Are you looking for a way to add some programming features to css? Then learn a css preprocessor. Do you have an interest in animation? Then learn about css animation and transitions. Is there a new tool you want to try? Go ahead and try it and learn how to use it.

Following your interests when choosing what to learn is a good way to differentiate yourself and your business from others. Odds are you’ll have a unique combination of interests, resulting in a unique set of skills and knowledge. It’s something that can set you apart from the competition.

Diffusion of ideas curve
Diffusion of Innovation Curve

You Don’t Have to be First

Something else to keep in mind is that even with the things you want to learn, it’s ok to wait. You don’t need to be the first person to learn the new thing.

Many of the technologies and techniques I use today I didn’t start learning the first time I heard about them. I think in the case of css preprocessors, it was a good year or more after hearing about them before I ever looked into any. Eventually I chose Sass, probably because it was more popular at the time. I’m hardly a preprocessing expert, but I’m confident I’m still ahead of most on the learning curve.

Speaking of curves, think about a bell curve or the diffusion of innovation curve. The latter curve is divided into the following segments.

  • innovator
  • early adopter
  • early majority
  • late majority
  • laggards

I probably jump in somewhere in the latter part of the early adopter stage, shortly before the early majority joins in. There are reasons for entering the curve here.

It allows the innovators to sort a lot of things out. Some technologies will never make it to the late early adopter stage and so there are less things you have to choose at that point. Those things that make it this far generally have less issues. You’re still ahead of the curve too.

There’s more information available at this point to help you learn. The crap has defined itself as crap and it’s easier for you to choose from the rest.

The more you pay attention to the industry, the more you can see the big picture of the industry. The easier it is to see the truly revolutionary changes that you should learn sooner rather than later. Responsive design is one of these revolutionary changes. It leads to many other things needing to change.

These large shifts make clear that everything else is also going to have to change or be left behind. Following big picture shifts can help you decide what to learn, because anything connected to the shift is something that’s probably good to learn.

Even then you still don’t have to jump on these things instantly. It’s more that they can help direct your course of study.

Summary

There’s always a lot to learn, especially in an industry like web design that’s still maturing and changing quickly. The pace of change is rapid and can sometimes be overwhelming.

I doubt we’ll be building websites in 5 or 10 years the same way we do now. I’ve seen so many changes over the last few years and expect the changes to continue over the next few.

I use different tools, different techniques, and different technologies. I think about design in a different way and use different patterns in my code. A lot has changed and a lot will continue to change.

It can feel overwhelming. I’ve felt it and continue to feel it at times. It doesn’t have to feel so overwhelming, though.

You don’t have to learn something new just because it’s new and someone told you about it. You should set aside time for learning or you should incorporate learning new things into your regular day to day tasks through multipurposing. Pick and choose what to learn based on what’s best for you to learn. Choose based on your short term project needs, your long term goals, and your general interests.

Let much of the new sort itself out. You don’t need to be so far ahead of the adoption curve that you’re spending time on things no one will be paying attention to in a year. It’s more efficient to fall back a bit along the curve and let others test the latest and greatest.

Let those at the very front of the curve learn and create learning material and information to help you learn.

Jump in early on the things you truly think will benefit your career or a particular project. See the themes in the new and look for those few things that stand above most and lead change in so many other things.

With most new techniques and technology you can afford to wait. If and when the time comes where you need to learn something, it’ll usually be pretty clear. Waiting just a bit still leaves you far ahead of most people, but it leaves fewer things to choose and it allows you to learn them more efficiently.

Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.

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