Knowing what you need to know

Learning as you go is a highly effective technique but you can run into substantial problems.

If you never have time to take the time to learn, then if you leverage learning as you go it’s likely that you’ll take shortcuts.

This can result in a rather duct tape laden approach, where you’re hacking something together to get the job done. This doesn’t work so well with learning as you go because you have big gaps in your knowledge that you’re not aware of. You don’t know what you need to know.

In my previous post, I talked about using Microsoft Word. And that learning Word is a good use case for learning as you go, to learn one feature at a time.

A good example of the trouble you can get into, say that you’re preparing mailing labels. You might’ve figured out how to create documents in Word and you might even have figured out how to create a layout that matches envelopes you can feed into your printer.

This works well for one off jobs where you need to print out one envelope.

But now let’s say that you received a request where you need to print out several hundred emails, perhaps a wedding is coming up and you need to send out invitations.

You have your list of addresses and people in Microsoft Excel. You sit down with Microsoft Word and you start to copy and paste the addresses out of Excel and into Word, resulting in a 200 page document that you send to your printer, to print out your 200 envelopes.

Of course this will take quite a bit of time, to copy all of the addresses by hand, so you likely feel pretty pressured. Pressured enough that you may not take the time to see what functionality might exist in Word to help you out. Especially if you’ve procrastinated.

You might entirely miss the fact that you can use a mail merge feature to grab a table of addresses out of Excel, take a template of the envelope in Word, merge the two together and send the result to your printer. All in a matter of seconds instead of spending hours copying and pasting addresses.

This is just one of many examples of what happens when we don’t take the time to know what it is that we might need to know.

Knowing what we need to know, versus hacking away, is of course a tradeoff. We can’t spend an infinite amount of time reminding ourselves what it is we might need to learn.

But, we can be aware that there are things we don’t know. Some gaps in our knowledge.

And the best way to be prepared for those is perhaps just to keep a list of things that we don’t know, things that we would like to know eventually, when the need arises.

So you might need to do some reconnaissance from time to time. This entails a high-level analysis of what you might want to learn in the future. But it definitely does not entail diving into specific details. Get a high-level overview.

Think of flying an airplane over a city. You want to write down the major landmarks to later explore. If you have this list, and subconscious priming, then when you get that pile of 200 envelops you might remember that there is a mail merge feature that you’ve never looked into. And so now is the time to do that.

Knowing what you need to know, but don’t yet know, is a great compliment to a learning as you go strategy.