my way part 4: personal development

In an ever changing world… they one that is standing still is the one moving backwards.

Many people go to school, college and then university. After they are done they start to work, learn about the trade and keep on doing that until their ready for pension. The modern world is moving at such a pace that 10 years from now we are required different skills to be able to function within a work environment. The tools of the trade are changing and so are the idea behind them. Technology does play a big part in this. But what about you?

“It takes only one person to change your life…you”
Ruth Casey

My story

I’ve always been a strange one when it come to learning things. My preparation for my exams were done on the couch in front of the TV… I passed them with flying colors…

From a fairly early age I had this way of learning. When I got my first bicycle I looked at it for almost a year. It made my mom kinda pissed as it was a new bike… and after that first year I almost could not ride it anymore because I had grown too much. But I did do something remarkable! After going out for about 5 to 10 minutes I went back home and had the training wheels taken off. “Take them off. Otherwise I’m never going to learn how to ride my bike” Joost Elfering (age 3). After about an hour later I was riding my bike on my own without any help. This is my first memory of me approaching learning thing like this.

As I grew older it was discovered that I had dysleksia… dislexia… dyslexia! Man… how can anyone create such a complicated word for such a condition… anyways! As that was discovered it also became apparent why I learned in my own way. I was doing the motions of riding a bike in my head. I was not only thinking about it but also seeing it as I was really doing it (read more here, here or here). Because of this I had to devise my own way of learning things at school. Some thing were a lot easier for me than for others. Other things were actually a lot harder!

I never learned the multiplication table by head… I couldn’t. But I could calculate in ways that others would not understand. 6 times 6 for me is… 10 times 6 is 60, divide by 2 and adding 6. Maybe complicated for the small numbers but while the equations got bigger the easier it was for me to solve them. I changed the way I calculated to best fit my train of thought. Not many kids of 8 do this…

I’ve always been very aware of what I wanted. Some thing I find interesting, others… not so much. As a college student we had to pick our classes at school. I know that art interested me and that exact sciences were very interesting to me. So I took art history, painting, advanced mathematics, advanced physics and chemistry. Result? The most class hours I could get in school. But I was happy with it! These classes allowed me to be creative and very analytical at the same time. My goal was either to become a designer or an engineer. I became both as I got into web-development and design.

After college I went to university to get a bachelor degree in computer science. This was really hard for me as the school only allowed me to do thing their way. I almost fought for every class I took and I ended up doing all the thing I wanted to do myself without any assistance from the program. I was taking classes outside of the program and ended up with more credit point that were required. I did extra classes in human psychology, sociology, art history and other media classes. But they were not accepted… I did get more out of those classes than any other ones from the program.

I switched universities to do a master program only to discover that I crossed over. I crossed over to the side of self development… I quit after half a year to do my own thing. Still taking some classes at university because it’s fun to learn thing. But nothing that actually would fit the program.

Teaching yourself

How can I teach you anything with the way I learn things? I can’t! They only one who can teach you anything has become you… You are the only one that can change you knowledge, change your skill set and let yourself evolve in something you want to be. I can however give you some pointers and ideas when it comes to personal development.

Keep going

Keeping a steady rhythm is also important when you start developing yourself. It is easy to forget and actually becomes harder once you stopped doing it. Keeping that rhythm also ensure you don’t over load yourself and you spread the work more evenly. Self discipline is still required!

I personally have two deadlines every year. These are my language deadlines and I try to teach myself at least the basics of a computer or natural language. So, after a few years of doing that I can do basic to medium level programming in 8 new languages and I speak 4 new languages outside my starters (dutch, english and german). Another rhythm I have is that I have a reading topic carrousel. Every 2 months I will switch topic. Topics can be art, history, physics, astronomy, psychology, mathematics, business and other related topics. This can be a bit much to start with. build it up and slowly see if you want to take more. If you find that is not possible, don’t worry. Everyone has their own pace and depth.

Change it up

If you look at the reading topics I have you’ll see that I have a very diverse selection of topics. I like to switch it up a bit. This is also why I do not only do computer languages but also natural languages. Change of environment can inspire new insights into other topics. The main advantage you get is the new view of the world you get from other topics. Learning to write code in another language can show you new ideas and show other ways of doing things in other languages.

A topic is never just the information, it is also the whole community surrounding it. As an example the Ruby community is about testing and allowing for change. This while the fedora community is all about continuity and stability. Both have good valid points and by learning from both communities you can take the best of both worlds.

And just remember! Think outside of the box. I’ve planned to go learn how to sail in the future. Nothing that should connect it to the web in general… right!?

Self discipline

The most important thing in self development in any case is self discipline. Learning new things is not always fun and can be very frustrating at first. Have the patience to push though to the good part. This is where you can apply the newly learned skills!

A good way to self discipline is to set yourself a goal. This goal should not just be any goal… it should be THE goal. Give yourself an incentive to do it. I always promise myself a new computer game for my collection. As I reach my personal goal I can buy one of the games I really want to have. This get’s me into interesting situation around christmas… but it’s fun!

Keeping it interesting

I’ve seen students work on learning all the material from the books, do the exam and forget it all the day after the results are in. By adding some extra fun to learning you can retain the information easier and longer. I still know how gamelan (musical ensemble from Indonesia) works. This is because I got to actually play some instruments and together with a group. Because of that I still know a bit about the history, purpose and ideals that make the art. Make learning fun by doing small fun projects with the knowledge.

Learn from others

It might be called personal development. But you don’t have to do it on your own. Take classes at the university, go on special courses and go to conferences to meet people, listen to lectures and talk with others about the subject. I know courses and conferences are expensive… but sometimes their worth it. My half year at the master program got me more interesting contacts, conversations and other encounters. Although I quit after only half a year it was totally worth it!

Taking courses

Let’s be honest about something. Taking a 2 day scrum course is not going to help you more then picking up a book and just doing it. Neither does a 2 week HTML/CSS bootcamp… Yes, the advertisements for those awesome courses are not always what they are cracked up to be. There are some really good. Codeschool.com is a good example of education that does work!

If you are able to take the courses, DO! It has several advantages over self teaching. Taking such a course will almost always result in some sort of certificate. Always nice to be able to add that to you resume. Another one is that is has an exam most of the time so your employer will have a nice statistical result to add to your achievements. Some of these reasons might be as light as air… but they do have that hidden business value.

The mentor

Another advice that Chad Fowler named in his book the passionate programmer is that is good to find a mentor. He discovered that when he was playing in a band with all better players that he became better himself.

Taken from the passionate programmer: Legendary jazz guitarist Pat Metheny has a stock piece of advice for young musicians, which is “Always be the worst guy in every band you’re in.” Originally spotted by Chris Morris at http://clabs.org/blogki

Don’t just stick with one, have as many as you think you need. They will all help you grow in different ways and like yourself they will have their strengths and weaknesses. Move around try to find interesting mentors that can help you on your way. Also, don’t become a mentor yourself too fast.

Teaching others

The last thing you can do is to teach yourself by teaching others. Although I advise against becoming a mentor too quickly I do advise you start teaching under a mentor. As a teacher you get to re-teach yourself the basics, you get to polish your own skills by talking about them. Being a teacher is like the talking to a rubber duck to explain your problem. Talking to the duck allows you to think out loud and revisit the problem statement. In that way the students can become your own little rubber ducks.

So how to start teaching… Well it’s actually very simple and very hard at the same time. Just like most things… It’s easy to learn, hard to master and it requires just a hint of talent. Doing presentations or standing in front of class is as much of an art as it is a science. It’s not for everyone and it’s an extra step in your own development. Maybe it is talking on an intern at your job or teaching to kids. Do whatever you can do, but don’t rush it.

If you want to begin, start small. Do a presentation at a local meeting of your peers. As a developer I talked about HTML5 and CSS3 to colleagues from a consulting agency. As a designers I talked at a local UX group about web usability. Talking about what you are passionate about makes it easier. Start small and work your way up from there. If you can find a teacher to assist that is cool. If you can find a mentor you can teach for that is awesome!

In the end

This may be kinda obvious… In the end it’s all up to you! It’s up to you to develop yourself in the direction and way you want. Anyone can give you pointers and ideas but it’s all up to you. Find a way that you can learn things that you feel comfortable with. Find your thing and give it a go. Find your mentor to teach you to teach another. And most important, find yourself!

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