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करत करत अभ्यास ते, जड़मति होत सुजान

रसरी आवत जात ते, सिल पर परत निसान

Persistence/Practice makes even a dumb person intelligent

(Just like) a soft rope can leave marks on a stone with constant rubbing

                    – Vrindavandas (1643-1725)

“Hello Rahul!”, he says, “How are you doing?”. I look at him and as I don’t recognise him, I want to run away from the conversation as soon as possible. “Doing well. Hope you are fine as well.” And there it goes. “You don’t remember, do you?”, he asks. Rhetorically. I apologise, make a vague excuse or sometimes tell the truth – “No. I don’t. Infact I don’t remember most of the events in my life. It’s not about you, it’s about me.” These episodes have happened more times than I can remember.

Over the years, I have come to realize this limitation. And, no. It’s not laziness. It’s not lack of interest. It’s not about not paying attention to names. I try hard as every time an episode like the above takes place, it’s an embarrassing moment for me.

I recollect from one of the testing conferences/meet-ups, where I hinted at these limitations of my memory and said “If I can crack it, anyone can. Because all of you are smarter than me.”. A testing guy, a very well known name in India, remarked something on the lines of – “Why all this drama, Rahul? Why this dialogue? You are a hypocrite. Your humility is a facade.”

I don’t blame him. If I look at it from his perspective, the situation is very strange. There is a huge imbalance between my accomplishments, my knowledge with respect to my limitations in memory. However, I guess my friend missed the surrounding message to enable this – Persistent Learning. While I still struggle with memory, I have been able to accomplish decently in the professional space. This article is not about building a power memory. It’s about thriving despite the lack of that.

From Cluelessness To Self-Realization

In the year 2004, I was insulted in an interview at a large MNC. The interviewer told – “ Rahul I fail to understand, what’s there in you that you are even sitting in this room.”. She was right in doing so. I was wasting her time. I didn’t belong in that room. I didn’t have the matching skills and was just giving it a shot, greedy for making more money, which I obviously didn’t deserve at the time.

But that’s what I thought a little later. My immediate reaction was a typical Punjabi reaction. When I came out of that room, I was using the choicest of the abuse words for her in my mind. “How dare she!” was the underlying thought. But only until the next day morning. I woke up and there was this sudden realisation – “She’s right. I’m nothing”.

From that day I started studying and exploring daily. As I had no clue how to start, my first attempts were to find whatever courses I could subscribe to. Some of them were mostly a waste of time, however the act of getting up early in the morning and sitting in a classroom itself was very helpful. It brought some discipline to my schedule at the time.

Over 1.5 decades of my career, I have hopped from one testing domain to other, at times dealing with multiple domains simultaneously. I’m your text book testing generalist. It has been a tough journey especially in the light of limitations I mentioned above. How do you build knowledge incrementally when you forget what you learnt earlier?

Three Types of Learning

I am no expert on learning. The purpose of this write-up is to share how I have arranged my own learning initiatives which I believe have helped me to a large extent.

Practice is a key element of learning. You need to totry out the concepts you have absorbed or about which you are skeptical and so on.

Following, IMO, are the three ways of learning/practising into which I can categorize my attempts at learning:

  • Repetitive Learning: I forget things. Too soon I should say. So, I revisit things. When we did mistakes in our school days, the teacher would give us a punishment to write that line 100 times. There is value in that. Don’t confuse it with cramming. When you do something repeatedly, it registers in your brain. It becomes a part of you. For my kind of memory it was essential. Revisiting the same task, book, lecture, notes etc has been one of the key sources of inspiration for the next two styles of learning.
  • Deliberate Practice: As repetition was essential for me, it could have got boring and redundant. So, I pushed myself very hard to a learn a little deeper when I picked the same book again or did an exercise next time or worked on the same problem in my job.
  • Tangential Learning: This is the key and often missed out. If you are exploring something, there would be so many references, keywords etc which are not directly related to what you are exploring at the moment. We should take a note of the interesting ones and add that to our “to-learn-and-practice” list(s).

Over the years, I realised that my strength is correlation of information, techniques etc, at times from seemingly unrelated fields. E.g. my test encapsulation research in test automation field was inspired by a piece of poetry. I firmly believe that Tangential Learning has been the key to whatever success I have had in my career so far.

Build a Learning Plan

  • Create a Learning Plan for yourself.
  • Start Somewhere: If you are not used to a daily learning schedule, don’t try too hard to build a plan. Pick up anything and get started. Over a couple of weeks, your learning plan would unfold in front of you.
  • Start Small: You can start with 30 minutes per day. Learning does not follow the math of addition. It starts its exponential curve very soon.
  • Never Ignore Small: There would be days when you can/would spend more time on learning. What is important is that you reduce breaks from learning as far as possible. This means that if you are away on a long vacation, you learn atleast for 30 minutes per day.
  • Take Notes: Pick a notebook. Create an e-document. Use Evernote or other note taking SaaS platforms. Whatever suits you. But take notes. It would reduce your revisiting time.
  • Create Something: Whatever you learn, identify a creation goal. It could be an article, a small script etc. Learning itself is a vague thing to track. Such creation goals would lead to something concrete and would give you some sense of accomplishment.
  • Collaborate: Try to identify or inspire someone who can be your learning partner. This way you can build on collective intelligence via discussions, brainstorming, debates and so on.
  • Share: You can take collaboration one step ahead by sharing your learning, your interpretations of what you have learned with the world. Blog, tweet, create YouTube videos and so on. This is also an excellent way of getting feedback about your learning. You also end up helping and inspiring others.
  • Never Give Up: Let me repeat: Never Give Up.

Dealing With Complexity

Complexity is a relative term. I find some things too complex for me, you would find others to be so. I recall that some 8-9 years back I became interested in local app exploitation. I found out that buffer overflow exploitation is a key learning point. I picked up a book by Syngress publication on the subject. After reading two chapters, my mind was blown. I had to leave it. Two months later, I again picked it up. This time, the first two chapters were a breeze. With more such revisits I was able to understand the subject in a decent manner. I built a small PoC for it which some months later was used by my organisation to demonstrate how buffer overflow exploitation works to a Japanese client! Although today I have a very vague recollection of that learning, I am happy that despite my struggle I was able to build something useful. As this was not a part of my job, I take pride in this small success.

The question is, what did I do in that 2-month gap between picking up that book again? That’s where the learning plan helps. I’ve so many things on my “To-Learn-And-Practice” list, that there is no gap. One thread of learning can be paused/suspended while you pick up the other. That’s the key to continuous learning.

Final Message

They say “Work smart, not hard”. I politely disagree. My story is based on hard work. My hard work at times led to some smart decisions. Apart from those who are Gods, blessed with exceptional IQ, for mere mortals like myself, hard work is the only concrete thing out of the two.

“For every two minutes of glamour, there are eight hours of hard work.”

                    – Jessica Savitch (News Presenter, 1947-1983)

Thoughts?

Edits:

  • Added the “Share” point based on Alan’s comment.

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