When I was in high school, I took a class on web design with the Adobe Creative Cloud software suite.
For an entire semester, we followed a textbook that took us from the very basics of the software to the most advanced features. We were introduced to EVERYTHING. We’d sit there for hours each day going over features that we were supposed to learn in order to “prepare” to build an actual website.
I finished the class with an A…yet I had absolutely no knowledge of how to build a website in the real world.
Fast forward a couple years…
Since dropping out of college, I’ve helped build websites for 20 million dollar ecommerce companies, growing startups, and personal bloggers.
I get asked all the time now what class I took to learn how to build sites or what online course I would recommend, and my answer is always the same: I wouldn’t recommend anything and I didn’t learn anything in class.
So how did I go about learning how to build websites?
The Student vs the Entrepreneur Approach to Professional Learning
A few months into starting my career, I had a lightbulb kind of moment.
I realized that even in my first few months on the job, I’d learned more than I ever learned in the classroom. Whereas web development had previously been a pretty shaky subject for me, I could suddenly build a decent site without much problem.
The difference was a matter of approach.
In school, I was learning a subject — specifically web design. Lessons were modular and I was taught to go through all them before I actually got started. There wasn’t much of a hierarchy of importance — I was just told to learn everything I could about the softwares I would be working with and then one day I could build a website.
The problem was that by the time I was actually ready to build a website, it was very difficult to reach into my memory and apply all of the things I’d studied in class. I had no idea where to begin.
In the workplace, I learned the object. I didn’t study web design in the abstract. I studied the things I needed to deliver on a given project. So when I wanted to build a personal blog, I didn’t go to a website tutorial to learn everything about websites. I Googled each specific problem I had during the building process and learned only that one thing.
Then I repeated that process as needed.
This allowed me to sidestep a ton of the wasted time and energy that goes into the school approach to learning. More importantly, it allowed me to tie each piece of my learning back to a specific, real world, deliverable. This solidified the knowledge in my mind and helped me see that in web development, as with anything, you can get 80% of the results with only 20% of the knowledge.
Over time, my knowledge of web design expanded and I feel reasonably confident that I can solve most problems that are thrown my way, but I couldn’t have gotten there by sitting in the classroom.
So my challenge, to any young person who wants to learn a new professional skill is this: get out of the classroom. Pick a creative project to work on and start building it. When you get stuck, go directly to the answer, learn only what you need, keep building your project, and repeat as necessary until you’ve completed it.
Then do it all again.