I've been encountering an idea quite often lately: learning in public. I suppose it isn't new: People have been blogging for a long time, often reflecting a sort of diary format that everyone can read.
But this is different. This is the idea that you can start out knowing pretty much nothing, being practically ignorant on a subject, and you let the whole world know about it. There's something that feels vulnerable about it. Except that now I realize it is a sign of strength.
Fifteen years ago I was working on a project that I hoped to present to the world someday. I created a website and slowly filled it with the fruits of my research. Except that no one knew what I was doing behind the scenes, and the final result, which really wasn't a final result because it still needed improvement, lacked a lot. I think the idea had a lot of potential. You can find it here. I hope to get back to it someday, but it would have been easier to keep making progress if I had more eyeballs watching along the way.
Now I realize that it would have been better if I had started from a position of total ignorance, and let the world see me slowly putting the pieces together. Why?
First of all, there's a lot of merit in seeing how a beginner thinks. We'll only look at a subject from a beginner's perspective once, and then we forget what it was like to see something for the first time. But putting the fruits of our labors out for everyone to see, even if it's crude, shows people it can be done, and helps those who already know the subject understand better how to teach it. Because we want teachers who understand our perspective.
Another reason to learn in public is, we articulate what we know. And when people see that we know something, they assume we are knowledgeable. We might assume that they can see right through us, and sometimes that's the case. But no one, not even the experts, knows everything about a subject.
Interestingly, a study published this year shows that younger, less experienced people tend to underestimate their ability to advise those who are older and more expert than themselves. "When compared to advisees’ actual perceptions, reverse advisers ... underestimate their effectiveness when giving general life advice (Study 2a–2b) as well as tactical advice (Studies 3–4). This misperception is in part driven by advisers’ beliefs about their own competence and others’ receptivity."
Learning isn't a means to an end though. It only becomes useful if we do something with it. So learning in public is synonymous with building in public. By building something, whether it's software, a creative work, or an essay, we show the degree of our competence, and in the process we begin iterating something that can actually become useful. Reid Hoffman summarized the MVP (minimum viable product) concept of modern startups by saying, “If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you've launched too late.”
How I'm doing it now
Einstein reportedly said: "My pencil and I are smarter than I am." Meaning, when one thinks about something with the intent to explain it to others, the ideas are more readily forthcoming. In trying (unsuccessfully) to track down the source of this quote I came upon a blog post written on this topic. One particularly quotable line: "In our search for meaning, writing is a prime power tool."
Another line I felt is worth repeating: "The honest work of writing well, expressing yourself as best you can, improves your ability to seek – and the quality of what you shall find."
There are many ways to write but writing in public requires having an easy-to-access, publicly available way to express ideas. Thanks to a well-written tutorial by Anne-Laure Le Cunff (found here) I've set up my own Digital Garden based on the venerable Tiddlywiki.
As the name suggests, Tiddlywiki is similar to Wikipedia in structure, but it's based on an atomic idea involving "tiddlers". A tiddler is a short note, basically one idea, which can be linked in many ways to other ideas.
Today I've started building my digital garden. You can find it here.It's here. But Google no longer smiles on insecure sites so it may block you from accessing it. I hope to post later about why I've abandoned developing this. I hope you'll give me feedback. You can find me on Twitter.
And until I started gathering information for this post, I didn't realize "Learning in Public" is the title of a popular song. I think it's kind of catchy. What do you think?