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Learning (@ Work)

April 16, 2019

I think the psychology of learning at work is interesting. On the one hand, an employer should want employees to ask questions and learn because that will mean that they will be more effective in the future. On the other hand, if the question is “too basic” then the employer (or the coworker who’s being asked) may question whether the individual is competent / deserving of the salary.

I am the most junior person on my team and definitely one of the most junior engineers in the company (in terms of engineering experience). As a result, I constantly don’t know things. Before asking someone for help, I ask myself a few questions:

  1. Can I look it up / teach myself?
  2. How long would that take?

“Google-fu” (i.e. the ability to find what you’re looking for efficiently) is a real thing and mine’s not yet as strong as I’d like it. Consequently, I ask more questions of others than someone who’s more experienced (i.e. they just know) or who’s Google-fu is stronger.

But that brings me back to the psychology part of this. I love learning. This week the team was recapping an interview we had where the candidate was someone who didn’t like being wrong. My immediate reaction was that I love being wrong because it means I have an opportunity to learn. It’s true too.

Being wrong is a thing that happens all the time. Admitting that I’m wrong before someone else notices, however, despite the fact that doing so will create an opportunity to learn, is scary. I will admit that absolutely no one has been anything but extraordinarily helpful and welcoming of my questions, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have a fear that one day they will be.

I’ve adopted two strategies to delay that day:

  1. I try to take notes on anything I learn. I use Bear which allows for really easy tagging of notes, and I have one called #engineering journal# which stores them all in a convenient place.
  2. I spread out who I ask so that no one person is burdened with all of my questions.

The second is actually beneficial on multiple fronts. Not only does it mean that I reduce the burden to any one person, it also means that I’m able to ask the same question to get multiple answers if the first one didn’t resonate.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the “advice giving” business lately and one of the comments I heard recently that made a lot of sense is that most people are really good at giving advice to themselves (or people who look a lot like themselves - at least situationally).

The same is true for teaching. The way that people teach reflects what they would have liked to know in order to understand — at least that’s true all things equal. The student can tailor the questions they ask to get more appropriate answers for themselves — but this only works when advice is 1:1. If the advice giver is talking to a generic audience, expect that they’re really talking to themselves.


Stephen Weiss

Written by Stephen Weiss who lives in Chicago with his wife, Kate, and dog, Finn. Follow him on Twitter!