You’re in the middle of an interesting online course. You just started reading a fascinating new book. You stayed up all night watching a series of talks by a provocative lecturer. Nobody knows. It’s a secret between you and your brain.
One day, however, you’re going to surprise everyone. Maybe you’ll make an appearance on television someday and someone will ask you a question about the very topic you’ve been secretly mastering. You’ll blow everyone away with your esoteric knowledge and make them all say “Wow, I had no idea you knew so much about the intersection between economic theory and quantum physics.”
Maybe your fantasies are little more conservative. Maybe you’ll be at a job interview or giving a public speech or publishing that one epic blog post you’ve been working on for two years. Regardless of the context, if you’re like most people, you’re not sharing what you’re learning until you get to a point where your knowledge is impressive.
It’s the way of the world: Learn about it in secret. Admit it when you’ve finally mastered it.
I’d like to challenge that approach.
Here are a few reasons why I think you should stop hiding what you’re studying and start showing your work before you’re an expert.
1. It distinguishes you from the overcrowded field of knowers
“In a world of change, the learners shall inherit the earth, while the learned shall find themselves perfectly suited for a world that no longer exists.” -Eric Hoffer
A knower is someone who is skillful at something or aware of something. A person knows piano if they can actually play the piano. A person knows ancient Greek history if they are aware of relevant facts about ancient Greece. We may not know anything about how a particular knower became knowledgeable, but we can tell they know their stuff when we listen to them talk or watch them work.
Being a knower, however, is different from being a learner.
A learner is someone who is highly effective at figuring things out even when they don’t know what they’re doing. Some people look very impressive when they know things, but they quickly lose hope once they’re in a situation where they have to find their own answers, wrestle with complex problems, or stick with a subject even when it ceases to be easy or fun.
Knowing what a person knows is very different from knowing what it’s like to work with that person when they don’t know. The latter is far more important to the people who have to work with you. And since everyone has things they need to learn, it’s highly valuable when you can signal your ability to do that very thing with patience and persistence.
The practice of learning out loud distinguishes you from the overcrowded field of knowers and it shows the world what you look like when you’re in the middle of making sense out of things. When people can watch you learn, they’ll still get to see how effective you can be when you’re in the know. But more importantly, they’ll get to see how consistent and composed you can be when you have no clue.
When building your professional brand, it’s easy to assume that everybody wants to see an article about “The 19 secrets to life you know at age 19” or “How you made six figures in six months at age sixteen,” but nothing rings more authentic and promising than your ability to say “I don’t know anything about this, I’m determined to learn, and I’m going to let you watch me keep my marbles together while I figure this thing out.”
2. Your visceral reaction to content can be more influential than the content itself
“The poem the reader reads may be better than that which the writer wrote. Try to make things that can become better than what you thought you were doing. ” -Brian Eno
I recently read a graphic novel called Saga. I told a friend about a moment in the story involving a character named “lying cat.” He enjoyed my telling of the story so much that it inspired him to read the book. Later on he told me that he didn’t find the story to be as interesting as my retelling of it. he loved my review but he hated the thing I actually reviewed.
We frequently underestimate the unique value of what we notice, of what makes an impression on us, of what strikes us as meaningful. We think it’s silly to share our own personal thoughts about the things we observe when we could just as easily say “Go buy this book” or “Go see this movie.” What we fail to realize is that it’s possible for people to be interested in our thoughts without being interested in the things that inspired those thoughts.
This is one of the more underestimated reasons for why it can be useful to learn out loud. People may never get around to consuming the books you read or taking the courses you take, but they may be willing to indulge your musings about those things.
There are lots of people out there who aren’t paying attention to what you’re paying attention to, but they’re paying attention to you. And that’s your unique opportunity to have an impact. Instead of just suggesting a resource by saying “check this out,” document your interactions with it. Tell others why you’re drawn to it. Share your favorite highlights. Talk about how it’s changing your life for the better or how it’s making you question your current assumptions.
Sometimes the way we celebrate content is more influential than the content itself. Sometimes the things we create are more interesting to others than the resources that inspired us to create them.
3. It not only builds your brand, but it builds the people around you
“Do everything in public and for the public. The more people you reach, the more useful you are. The opposite is hiding, which is of no use to anyone.” -Derek Sivers
One of the biggest fears people have about learning out loud is that it will make them look vain or superficial. I’m always amused by the fact that this concern rarely comes up when people use social media to post selfies and pictures of what they’re eating for dinner. At the very least, sharing what you’re learning can’t be more superficial than that. But I’d like to make a stronger case. I contend that learning out loud is one of the most generous and liberating things you can do for others.
Learning out loud transforms the people around you into better learners. By observing your successes and your struggles, others can pick up ideas that help them improve their own techniques. You don’t get to have this kind of influence if you only learn in secret.
In There’s Nothing Egocentric About Showing Your Work, I wrote:
“Nearly everyone is looking for examples that will help them make sense out of their own creative process. When someone wants to build a business, they go looking for examples provided by people willing to share the details of how they built their businesses. When someone struggles with a problem, they go looking for examples provided by people willing to share their struggles and solutions related to that same problem. When someone wants to create an app, a website, a pitch deck, or anything else, they go looking for examples provided by people who chose to shine a spotlight on the failures, epiphanies, and successes they experienced while they built those things. Whenever we learn, we learn because of the resources, stories, and case studies left behind by the generous people who were willing to document and share their process of personal/professional development.”
The world is filled with people who are afraid of looking stupid. When you choose to learn out loud, you set those people free. You give them a reason to believe it’s okay to be something other than an authoritative-sounding guru who only speaks up when he thinks he has all the answers. It’s similar to a regularly occurring phenomenon I observe at lectures I attend. During the Q&A portion, no one seems to have any questions. In truth, everyone is just too scared to ask. Then one brave person raises their hand. After the lecturer answers that very first question, everyone else is suddenly eager to publicly voice their own curiosities and concerns. Everyone had questions, but it took one person to set them free. When you learn out loud, you get to be that person.
If I’ve managed to convince you and you’re interested in knowing more about how to document the things you’re learning, here’s an introductory article on how to put your learning projects on display.