- Join the hive mind
We all eventually reach the point in our careers when we realize that we can't know everything. This realization can be a tough one for some people -- who wants to admit that there's more knowledge out there than any one mind can possibly hold? Paradoxically though, I've grown to view this limitation as a source of comfort. Since it's not possible to be all-knowing, there's little point in pressuring myself to learn each nuance of each new emerging technology.
While it may not be possible for you to know everything, there's someone else out in the world who knows more than you do about any given subject. Use their knowledge! By surrounding yourself with people who know more than you, you provide yourself with a deep source of technical knowledge and experience. I do this by frequently attending meetups in fields that are just on the periphery of my usual field of expertise. One such meetup is Technologieplauscherl. Here, discussions range from the latest web frontend technologies, hottest SQL queries, emerging companies, start-up funding (and failing), to scientific cooking methodologies and beer-brewing recipes. Anything that is remotely connected to technology is open for discussion. The audiences are varied and include people who have never coded a single line of code in their lives. This ensures that the speakers prepare their talks very carefully. Talks must appeal to a general audience while including just enough insightful points to intrigue the professionals in field. There is no better way of getting the gist of a new subject!
- Look beyond your own nose
Should you come across a hot new topic that appears to be the best new invention since sliced bread, chances are that someone in your circle of acquaintances has already learned something about it. This is why it's important to extend your networking outside of your typical bubble. I seek out people who work outside of my field. I may chat with chemists at dinner and have lunch with Java developers just to get an idea of their everyday challenges and the solutions that they've developed to manage them. This strategy helps me identify and categorize new technologies in my field early on. It also serves to bring fresh approaches to my own challenges.
- Listen, learn, read on!
This saying is more than just a great Deep Purple song. It's also my mantra for vacuuming up information by way of podcasts. Podcasts are great because you can listen to them anywhere at any time. I use my bus rides to work, the longer tram rides home from work, and the dinner-cooking hour to catch up on the podcasts I subscribe to. A friend of mine listens to his podcasts while waiting for his kids to fall asleep. I'm sure you can find many such moments in your own life where you can learn something new from podcasts. Podcasts usually present a condensed version of a given subject. Someone else has already done all the difficult research and is willing to share their experiences with you. A good podcast is like eavesdropping on a professional discussing the insights he's gained in his field.
That said, I seldom listen to every single word in the 3-4 hour podcasts that I subscribe to. Most of the time, my sub-consciousness helps me bridge the scraps of conversation that I taken in, helping me make connections and apply lessons learned to my own field. After listening to an interesting podcast, I make note of key terms and often perform further research on my own. Linked articles in podcast show notes can be a great help in gaining further insight into a topic.
- Skip the how-to articles
When skimming through related articles, I usually skip over the how-to articles. Such step-by-step articles may tackle a specific problem, but they usually don't bring me closer to understanding key concepts. In how-to articles, key concepts are often already assumed to be set in stone. I much prefer thinking through key concepts on my own and drawing my own conclusions as to how I can apply them to my own work.
On the other hand, introductory articles can be great, assuming they aren't too basic to be of interest. Have a look at the first several paragraphs of each article. If they don't convey the key features of the technology, you can probably do better. I look for the following when evaluating an article:
What does it do? Focus on the key task. What does the thing do?
Am I able to achieve the key task already? If so, what's different? Often there's a pre-existing solution in place for achieving a specific task. The interesting point then becomes how the new technology differs from existing technology.
What are the key underlying concepts? Here is where you go deep and find out the how of the article. Look for terms you recognize that can help you categorize the new information and draw comparisons with what you already know.
A wonderful example is the recent Webpack article at Smashing Magazine. It tells you early on what Webpack is and that you can achieve the same key tasks using other tools. But there's this one little extra feature that just may encourage you to change your build-tool suite.
- Stay fresh
Last, but not least. It's good to take a break from learning every once in a while. Go for a walk. Go to the gym. Watch a movie. Relax at the spa. Read comics! Anything that puts your mind at ease. I do this just long enough until I find some new subject that I desperately want to learn about! Then I listen, learn, and read on.