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How to learn through failure

“Progress is impossible without change; and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”

George Bernard Shaw

I recently read this blog post by Jim Nielsen where I learned how to notice if I’m actually learning or not.

Like everyone else I’ve read ad nauseam about how important failing is to the learning progress. I’ve become convinced that this is true, but I find myself unable to explain how does that work?

I can’t just attempt to fail, fail repeatedly, and magically improve?

So when I read Jim Nielsens piece Learning and Being Wrong I was ecstatic to find a description for what failure and learning feels like in practice.

The post is based on notes from Adam Grant’s book Think Again, which I haven’t read (yet).

In a series of quotes and notes Jim describes what it feels like to learn.

“If you don’t look back at yourself and think, ‘Wow, how stupid I was a year ago,’ then you must not have learned much in the last year.”

All that time we spend regretting past choices and missed chances are actually a proof that we’re making progress. How wonderful! And it doesn’t stop there.

He’s also found this amazing quote that describes what learning looks like in practice.

“Being actively open minded means “searching for reasons why we might be wrong—not for reasons why we must be right” because “the purpose of learning isn’t to affirm our beliefs; it’s to evolve our beliefs.””

This quote is almost a step by step instruction on how to learn. Whenever I learn something new, I should actively look for ways to be wrong. This seems counter intuitive. But doing it this way I will much quicker understand if I am mistaken, or end up not being able to find anything wrong, and proceed knowing it’s true enough.

This process lets me trust what I know a lot more, as well as gives the right kind of attitude about knowledge: it’s never absolute truth.

A thought that struck me when I got this far was: Would that process work for new knowledge as well? Things where there is no one to ask, or no existing reference material? 

Let’s say I do some test or look at something and formulate some naive idea about how it works. I write that down and then start looking for ways I might be wrong. I will probably keep discovering edge cases and ways my theory is incorrect. But iterating on that process, I could end up discovering completely new knowledge.

So here’s a three step process for learning anything through failure, based on the above insights:

  1. Form a hypothesis based on your observations. Ex: React is the most popular framework for new digital businesses.
  2. Actively look for ways to be wrong. Ex: Ask around for startups looking to hire for alternative tech stacks. Check google trends and news trends for competing frameworks.
  3. Either reform your hypothesis based on new information. Ex: React is the most popular framework in new VC backed digital businesses.
    Or realise that you can’t invalidate it, and act as if it’s true.

I have no idea if this is true or not. But I’m mightily excited to try and disprove it!

I’ll end this post with another brilliant insight from this post, what knowledge feels like:

“being wrong is the only way I feel sure I’ve learned anything.”

Let me know if I’m wrong, please. And enjoy being wrong!

Hard work is not the solution

I listened to the Tropical MBA podcast a few weeks ago and one idea made me drop everything and question my process. I wrote about it at the time, but since then my thinking has moved on a bit, and I want to share what I’m currently exploring.

So I truly believe, especially when you’re stuck, which is I’m sure a problem all of us have, it’s much better to experiment and play that gets you much further along than hard work. Now disagree with me if you want to. But the biggest breakthroughs in my business, and my personal life, they’ve all come through experimentation. Not hard work.

Darren Joe

This is frighteningly true in my case.

The best work I’ve done was the result of experimenting and stepping outside my comfort zone. But daring to experiment and follow the results requires an open mindset, and relaxed schedule. In other words experimenting with a sense of play. Not at all the structured process I usually apply to work.

A little later in the same episode the host, Dan, connected another thought to this powerful idea:

essentially practice based learning. You can’t read or listen to this podcast your way into being a great entrepreneur, you really have to kind of like monkey see monkey do

Dan Andrews

I believe this to be true. In fact it was the first topic we discussed when I studied pedagogics at University. Somehow I’ve forgotten this over the years.

The Idea

These two ideas paint a vivid picture for me, that make me want to change my approach to work. I’ll try to summarise this thought here:

  • You won’t learn the important things without trying them out. Reading, listening, taking notes, can only give you ideas you need to experiment with. Not the actual knowledge.
  • You won’t get much done if you’re only working hard. You can do linear, mechanical, work. But not the creative work that will really truly leverage your time. For that you need to experiment, and playfully.
  • So to improve your output and learning, you should maximise the amount of time you spend playing around with experiments. In short, follow your inspiration and explore.
  • Here’s the awkward part; it follows logically that hard work and formal learning might actually slow you down. So you should avoid them at all costs.

The Work

I’m excited to experiment with this. Though since this is a big change of direction, I’m not sure how. To make time to play and experiment, I need time, without the pressure of goals. So I need to stop working on a lot of the projects I’ve started.

I also need to follow my curiosity, but inspiration wanes, so I probably need to make smaller experiments profitable. One way of doing that is to publish the work.

I’m excited about trying this out. I will try to share my progress, but I’m also really interested in hearing other ideas on this topic. Drop me a message, or tweet. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

How to reach props via this using Typescript with Vue 2x

This article only describes this specific case, if you want to know how to set up Typescript for Vue this is a good source.

On a recent client project I had wanted to reach prop values of my component and needed to use this, but that causes errors:

// example
mounted(): void {
  this.interval = setInterval(() => {
    doSomething()
  }, 1000)
},

// error
Property 'interval' does not exist on type 'CombinedVueInstance<vue, {}, unknown, Readonly<{poll: Poll; radius: string;}>>'

This caused quite a bit of annoyance before I realised the simply fix.

The solution is just to add a placeholder in data so the Vue instance has this value on initialisation. This allows Typescript to know that the value does indeed exist on the instance.

export default Vue.extend({
  name: 'PollingComponent',
  data() {
    return {
      interval: 0 as any,
    }
  },
  mounted(): void {
    this.interval = setInterval(() => {
      doSomething()
    }, 1000)
  },
})

Now there’s some interesting browser compatibility problems regarding the type of an Interval. I found that it could be both a Timer or a Number depending on the browser. So in the end I just ended up using any. I can’t see any hard in that since it’s a Javascript function.

Happy coding!

How to use Typescript with props in Vue 2x

This article only describes this specific case, if you want to know how to set up Typescript for Vue this is a good source.

I recently had this issue in a client project. I wanted to use component properties with a shared Interface model, but using it directly as a type results in the error:

'Poll' only refers to a type, but is being used as a value here.

So how do you use a Typescript interface with your Vue component?

You make your type a function that returns the interface. Why this works I’m not quite sure of. But it does work.

Interface Poll {
  question: String,
}

export default Vue.extend({
  name: 'PollCard',
  props: {
    poll: {
      type: Object as () => Poll,
      default: {} as Poll
    }
  }
});

Happy coding!

Incomplete things drain you

Things you didn’t say. Tasks that haven’t been completed. Open tabs with things you want to look at.

Everything we don’t finish cost a little bit of mental energy. Just a tiny amount. But over time these things will drain all the energy you have.

Do you think I’m exaggerating? Try this: close all your tabs, and delete all your tasks, then ask yourself, how do you feel?

Being more creative, by being lazy

I recently re-read Show Your Work and noticed something I had missed on the first read, and I’ve been trying it out this week.

In order to be creative, we need to give our minds space to work. This is why you get so many new ideas while walking. New ideas and solutions can’t be forced, your brain is not a muscle, but your mind can offer up ideas when you give it space.

When you take a break, let your mind drift without input. Just like while taking a walk, just let it do it’s thing. Organising and synthesising the information we’ve consumed.

I’ve been trying this for a few days, and it’s surprisingly enjoyable. I take a break every 25 minutes to stretch my legs (I work sitting on the floor), and I’m not allowed to consume media on those breaks. Automatically reaching for my cellphone is a problem, my discipline has been far from perfect, but I’ve had great results.

I may be slightly more creative, but a lot more relaxed. I’ve put in more focused hours according to Rize and yet spent more quality time with my fiancé.

Try it, and let me know how it went.

Delegate or Do It Right?

Have you ever thought “It’ll be faster if I do it myself, I’ll do it the right way the first time”? Or maybe you’ve recognised this thought appearing in your managers mind when you asked too many questions?

I think this idea is a obstacle to delegating effectively. We instinctively feel that we can do it correctly ourselves. But someone else might need a few tries, or the result might not even be as good.

I think this thought is a self delusion. The truth is that the process of doing the work often defines the intended result. We’re exploring just as much as executing. We know what “good enough” is when we see it.

Whenever this thought appears in our minds, we probably haven’t defined the outcome well enough. If I can’t instruct someone to do it, I probably don’t know what needs to be done.

Learning faster through play

I spend a lot of time trying to learn new things, so I was a bit flustered yesterday when I heard the following (paraphrased) on the TopicalMBA podcast:

Hard work and learning from reading is not the key to real growth. You have to experiment and play, to try out new ways of being to get different results.

I had to stop my deadlift set and re-listen to this a few times. Because this feels like an obvious truth that I’ve just neglected for a long time.

We all know instinctively that we can’t learn to ride a bike or skateboard by reading a book about it. At some point we have to get on the wobbly board and crash over and over again. We even know that this is normal, and while it might be a bit embarrassing it’s obvious that if we just try crashing and falling off a bunch of times we’ll learn.

So why do we retreat into books, podcasts, and listening to others when we’re learning about things like entrepreneurship? Shouldn’t the obvious step be to get on the wobbly board and expect to fall?

I think this ties nicely into the idea of Resistance from Stephen Pressfield’s The War of Art, which if you haven’t read you should. When we’re doing things that are important to us, that importance increases our nervousness about the unknown. So we struggle to control the unknown future by basically procrastinating.

Avoiding to actually do the thing we instead prepare infinitely. There’s always another important book to read, another google search for the answer, another conference where we’ll learn the true way of doing the thing.

The insidious truth is that we do learn from others. It actually does help us get closer to the goal. Just not as fast as if we just experiment and play. And fall off.

This insight was profound for me, and I hope it might help you also. How much time do you spend researching, and how much of that time might you spend simply selling or building or playing around with new tools instead?