When you’re starting in any field basic literacy is a must. As a designer you need to learn to operate Photoshop, use grids, good typography rules, and many other things. Programmers need to learn the basics of their chosen language and the basics of version control.
Then it’s time to stop with the theory and the textbooks. Once you’ve established basic technical literacy in your field it’s time to move to a new form of learning.
Don’t try to swallow the dictionary. Don’t try to get word-rich quick by memorizing a fancy list of words whose meanings are unconnected with any actual experience. In short, do not forget that the dictionary is a book about words, not about things – How to Read a Book
Just like the dictionary is a book about words, textbooks are books about theoretical problems that you might maybe have to solve one day. They may be based on real problems the book’s author solved once, but you’re not solving them in any practical way as you read. You’re not immersed in the problem — just some text on a page.
The best way to learn once you get past basic technical literacy is to dive into real problems and solve them. Take on a small client project for a friend or family member and put your knowledge into real world use. Don’t use that knowledge to build something for yourself, because you’re going to let yourself off the hook a whole bunch when it comes to hard problems. Take on a paying client where the bar will be higher and you’re held accountable.
Being forced to build out a feature or solve a design problem in a way that you like and matches with the goals of the client is going to teach you much faster than reading another textbook.
Write about it
Once you’re starting to solve problems that get you stuck just a bit, it’s time to write about it. Little solidifies learning better than trying to teach what you’ve just learned. When you begin blogging about what you’ve learned, you’ll discover the parts you don’t understand, which you can then dig into and gain the understanding.
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In addition to improving your understanding, writing and publishing is going to help your marketing. Others are going to have the same problems you’ve had and find answers through what you write. As they keep finding you, they’re going to start looking to you as a thought leader.
When I was starting in the WordPress space I had a few technical blogs and out of those I got to know many people that send me constant referrals. Without those relationships I wouldn’t have the business I have today. All I did was write about the problems I was solving, over and over.
If you’re just sticking with reading textbooks it’s time to be honest with yourself. You’re simply procrastinating. You’re hiding from the real world. Get out there and put your knowledge to the test and learn more. Then write about it so others can learn about it, and you can deepen your understanding.
If you do those things, you’re on a path to becoming an expert in your field.