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Learning How to Learn (Part 3): Hitting a Wall

Let's say you have a great love of learning. You have a passion for learning new things and make the time to pursue that passion. You know how you learn best, and it works quite well for you. Learning is exciting and satisfying. And then you hit a wall. What do you do now?

This very thing happened to me after I finished my Master's Degree and started working full time. Although I did not realize it was happening at the time, I let my love of learning languish for years after finishing college. A number of factors came into play during those years to distract me from learning. That is not to say that they were bad things. Some of them were wonderful life experiences, as you will see. In looking back, though, I can see there were times when I could have and should have been more thoughtful of my professional development. Here are the main reasons why my learning stagnated. Maybe some of them will be familiar to you, as I am sure many of us tend to forget about learning through the years.

1. Burnout

Towards the end of my Master's Degree, I just wanted college to be over. Don't get me wrong, I loved college. It was the most fun I had ever had in my life, but after six years, it was wearing me down. It wasn't just the six years of college, though. It was the 18 years of school. I had worked extremely hard through high school and college, including holding a part-time job as an intern at the company that I would later work for full-time, and I needed a break. 

After studying solidly for that long, the last thing I wanted to do was pick up another textbook, but I probably shouldn't have taken such a long break. A few months would have been enough time to recover, and then I could have picked up a software design book or discovered and started reading some of the excellent blogs that were popping up at that time - something to stay current and keep my mind nimble. I picked up something else instead.

2. Distractions

I had build up quite a backlog of video games that I had bought but hadn't played during college. After my freshman year, I didn't have much time to play anymore, but I still accumulated plenty of games that I figured I would get to later. Post-college was the time to relax and catch up on some great games. I probably went a bit overboard, not leaving time for much else in the evenings. That would include learning something new, like a new programming language.

3. Family

I met a wonderful woman in college, and we got married and started a family. I now have two incredible young children that bring me joy every day of my life. Obviously, I don't have any misgivings about the choice to start a family. I list it here because a family definitely takes time, and you should spend as much time as you can with your family because that time is short. 

So how do you make time for learning when you have a family? I've found that once the kids are in bed, there's enough time in the evening to pursue my own interests. It just takes more discipline and dedication. If the motivation is there, the energy to keep learning will be there. And once the kids are older, we can learn together. Teaching is a great way to learn. I already have plenty of fun projects in mind.

4. Home Ownership

While I have no regrets in starting a family, I cannot say the same thing about home ownership. Owning a home is a tremendous time sink. It took us years to get settled in our new house to the point where it no longer takes so much of our time, but yard maintenance is still a lot of work. If I had to pick one thing on this list that I would have done differently, I would seriously consider living in an apartment or condo instead of a house. The extra space of a house is nice, especially with children, but I'm not convinced that the trade-off is worth it. (My wife agrees.)

5. Career

This one takes a little explaining. It would seem that a career shouldn't be an impediment to learning and professional development. An engineering career should be a vehicle for learning plenty of new things. While it is true that I learned a great deal while working as a test engineer and IC designer, I wasn't learning anything new on my own. That's important. If you're not learning outside of your career, it's very easy to become complacent. To let the tide take hold of you, and just drift along. The pursuit of knowledge is an active endeavor, and I should have taken more control of what I was learning on my own time. I could have been picking up new programming languages, or understanding current development best practices, or paying more attention to where the industry was headed. Instead, I was going with the flow.

Getting Beyond the Wall

So what changed? My job disappeared. My previous company decided to close down the design center where I was located. I was given an offer to relocate overseas, but it was a difficult decision. My coworkers and I did know at some level that that day was coming. There were plenty of signs of the impending shutdown for months prior, but we were actively ignoring them. So the news came as quite a shock, and I was painfully aware of all the things that I should have been learning over the years to be more professionally valuable. There's nothing like having the blindfold whipped off while standing at the edge of a cliff. 

I didn't waste any time. I dove back into learning with a rediscovered passion that I had forgotten was there. Luckily, I found a great new job much more easily than I expected, yet the learning continued beyond getting the job. What I quickly found was that I didn't need the external motivation of losing my job to pursue learning again. That was just the spark that started the fire. My internal desire to learn was still there, buried, but easily uncovered. Once it was rekindled, it took on a life of its own. I've been devouring books like crazy since then, reading everything I can for over a year now, and I think that my software engineering abilities have dramatically improved. I certainly still have a lot to learn, but now I know where I'm going.

Cultivating a Lifelong Love of Learning

Once I had gotten into the swing of things again, I realized that learning outside of school is much different than it was before. I have total control over what I learn in my free time, and total responsibility. I need to carve out the time to study, pick out the materials I'll use, and devise my own projects to do for practice. It's entirely on me to improve my knowledge in a way that's more self-driven than even my favorite graduate courses were. That's very empowering and satisfying.

I wish I had come to this realization sooner. I could have been continuing my education all along. A little time off after college was warranted, but not years off. The technology industries move fast, especially software, and letting years of development in the software industry go by will leave your knowledge pretty obsolete. You should always be learning.

I am not advocating the pursuit of knowledge to the detriment of all else. Maintaining a lifelong love of learning requires balance. Learning how to learn involves developing an awareness of that balance between your personal, family, social, and professional lives. Without balance, the pursuit of knowledge could become meaningless, or worse, draining, instead of fulfilling. If you hit a wall, take a short break. Then find the right balance, and pace yourself.