Learn by doing

“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”


I’m a kinesthetic learner. I naturally learn by doing. I recoil at the concept of books, lessons, courses and training. When I try learning this way I fail badly. I started learning the guitar by picking one up and listening to Hey Joe by Jimi Hendrix and kind of clumsily working it out. I started learning Spanish by making a complete fool of myself. The first time I learned how to build a website was when I built my first paid website. I didn’t learn everything, it probably wasn’t a great website. But I got there in the end and it did exactly what I wanted it to. There were some terrifically painful moments. I evidently learned from my mistakes and how to prevent them in the future. Remembering the pain they caused, there are many mistakes I’ve never made again.

Looking retrospectively over various jobs and interests, the things I’ve never forgotten are the things I learned by doing.

Learning by doing helps you develop analytical skills and reflect more readily on your learning experience.

Of course, in this form of learning, there’s no structure, no process, fully adopting it may not support your learning style or even how your brain works and I clearly understand that there are a great deal of advantages to following a curriculum, having learning objectives and expectations. But all learning methods involve exercises, which are the practical application of your learning. Exercises are the doing part.

Yet quite often, I come across articles and quotes like the following tweet (which inspired me to write this brief article) from Kevin Hoffman at An Event Apart, (via Jeffrey Zeldman) which heavily support the doing over the listening, seeing or reading. Grabbing the bull by the horns. Seizing an opportunity.

We retain 20% of what we hear, 30% of what we see, 90% of what we make and manage. Doing beats seeing beats hearing. @kevinmhoffman #aeadc

— Jeffrey Zeldman (@zeldman) August 7, 2012

The value in applying your learning, by doing, is tremendous. Focusing on your learning as part of the design process is vital in understanding how to apply principles. This is especially important as new technologies and techniques evolve – you can’t learn this stuff up-front but you can adapt working principles if you apply your learning.

Regardless of how you learn, there are some things you can only learn by doing.

There’s an element of the unknown when learning by simply doing. An element of fear. This may be something you need to overcome, or something you fully embrace. For some people this is an overwhelming challenge and others it’s what motivates them.

However, there’s so much help out there. You’ll get stuck, you’ll hit walls and you’ll make mistakes. But that’s the whole point. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. It’s a way of innovating.

Always support whatever your learning methods are with a practical application of your learning. Set goals with tangible outcomes. Think “I’ve learned this so want to build this component now”. Don’t just follow set exercises, take them a step further, think “How can I apply this in what I want to do?”, “What can I build now?” or “What can I have to show for this?”.

But even starting with the doing part is at the very least worth giving a try. There’s nothing better than the opportunity present in a blank page.

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