Mastering something new

In the 25 years I’ve been working I’ve had 4 careers (electronics sales, electronics technician, Mac desktop and network support consultant, software developer). So I’ve had to master my share of new subjects.

I figure I’m probably smart, but not genius smart (IQ test don’t really tell you much – although I usually score above average). So, being completely self taught is a certain source of pride for me. Although I’ve taught many structured classes, I’ve taken very few. Instead, I’ve relied on some of the following techniques when approaching new subjects:

  • Make time for play – learning is all about making mistakes. It is a lot easier to give yourself the freedom to make those mistakes when you are playing. That could be puttering in your workshop to master a new woodwork technique, or investing a day or two on a development spike to play with a new software technology. The object of the exercise is to give yourself time to experiment without the stress of having a deliverable. You will always learn something, even if the result of your play is an abject failure as a product.
  • Leverage your passion – learning is not always fun. It often requires a good deal of head scratching and/or boring repetitive work before the pieces begin to fall into place. Early on you may feel like you are not getting anywhere. It is important that you have enough motivational inertia to carry you through. I’ve always found it immensely easier to master a new subject that I am passionate about learning rather than one that I feel I oughta know.
  • Invest in the books – I’ve never understood people you set out to learn a new subject, but balk at purchasing the books available. If you are passionate about learning the subject, and there is a book that contains details you might need, the cost (in my view) is insignificant. I also highly recommend buying multiple books on the same subject, the more descriptions, or alternate views I can get on a topic, the better.
  • Find the community – there is always a lot to learn from others. Knowing the masters of the subject and your peers is imperative to placing your knowledge in the continuum of learning. With the Internet, the best place to look is a topic specific mailing list. But when I was mastering electronics, I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without the community of geeks who hung out and worked at General and Arkon Electronics in Toronto (sadly two stores no longer in existance).
  • Create a deadline – at some point I find that playing is not enough. To really master a subject, I’m going to have to build a real product. One that drives me outside of my comfort zone. The easiest way I’ve found to do that is to commit to delivering a solution based on someone else’s needs. In this way I’ve created a deadline and an impetus to put my learning into practice.
  • Aim for the Zen – every topic I’ve ever sought to master has a certain kernel of knowledge (not information) that once adopted, makes the process clearer. For me with electronics, it was ability to see schematics as being comprised of modules that could be later mixed and matched. With WebObjects it was the understanding of OOP and especially the Model-View-Controller (MVC) paradigm and the value it brings. The idea is to grasp the Zen of the topic – The deeper meaning that can act as a bedrock of your learning allowing you to understand why and not just how.
  • Teach someone else – there is no better way to truly master a subject than to commit to teach someone else. In doing so, you will need to analyze the assumptions you’ve made and your students questions will expose the blind spots in your understanding. You will also realize that a good teacher needs to be truly humble. There is no shame in saying I don’t know the shame is in not saying it.

Buffy Porson

One of the coolest projects I built as a kid was from the book The Buffy-Porson: A Car You Can Build and Drive (see more here). I spent the entire winter when I was 12 building it. The finished car was gloss black and looked very cool. I remember scouring all of the bike shops I could find in Ottawa looking for wire spoke tricycle wheels. I finally found a set of 4 – 12 inch wheels in the basement of some shop on Bank Street (I’m sure all of the shop owners thought I was nuts).

We came back from spending the summer at our cottage that year and someone had broken into our garage and stolen it – I was crushed. I never saw it again.


I came across this picture of a finished (and heavily modified version). Makes me want to hunt down a copy of that book and get me a 4×8 sheet of 3/4″ ply. 🙂

My first hack

I think I was 3 or 4. I’d found a small light-bulb somewhere (maybe a dismantled Christmas gift) and I’d begged my dad to help me build something in his workshop. – so we built a flash light.

I remember nailing the blocks of wood together to form a small box that held a C-cell battery. A piece of wire acted as the contact to the cathode and a screw made contact to the anode and acted as the switch (loosening the screw pulled it’s point into the block of wood broke the contact with battery).

We used a trio of common nails partially driven into the end of the box to hold the lightbulb. I think I used the same technique several times later in other projects.

It’s quite amazing how clear some of those memories are. I think that was a pretty influential experience – it certainly set the stage for my later experiments.

Joe 90

I received a Dinky Joe 90 car for my 5th or 6th birthday. It was cool, it had a jet engine exhast that flashed, and spring driven wings that popped out.

I immediatly took it apart.

I spent hours trying to get the spring mechanism in place and the toy back together again. Finaly in tears of frustration, I broke down and brought the disassembled car my father. An hour later, he and my brother (5 years my senior) returned the toy (in one piece) with a stern warning to never do that again.

I promptly took it apart again.

I had it back together again in about 15 minutes. Knowing it could be done was all it took – yeah, I was that kind of kid.

I also had the Dinky UFO Interceptor – now there was one really cool toy!