How Do I Learn X?

(Cross-posted from my Frequently Asked Questions page)
(Just an advice-dump – I hope it's helpful to you!)
(1 minute read per section, 9 minutes total)

How do I learn...


How Do I Learn...

First, some general advice:

Most people (including myself!) practice inefficiently by default. Or if they do practice "efficiently", it's at the cost of being boring & demotivating.

So, to learn in a way that's efficient and motivating, I recommend making small projects. If you just learned about Special Relativity, write a short essay explaining it in lay words. If you want to practice writing dialogue, write a short story with lots of talking.

Also, I highly recommend Spaced Repetition. It's "flashcards on steroids", backed by replicated cognitive science. Check out this video. Most people use the app Anki, but I use a physical Leitner Box, coz the tactility makes it more fun, thus more motivating. Note: Spaced Repetition isn't just for memorizing raw facts, but also deeper understanding – to your cards, add "why" questions, visual proofs, practice problems, etc.

Finally, read this: What Works, What Doesn't. It's a summary by 5 cognitive scientists on what studying methods work or don't. (For example: highlighting & re-reading, the two most popular methods, don't work.)

Now, for learning specific things...

Math

The only people who understand what is going on are the ones most often blamed and least often heard: the students. They say, β€œmath class is stupid and boring,” and they are right.
~ A Mathematician's Lament

If I were the Education Czar, I would remove math from the compulsory curriculum, because I love math. Nothing kills the love for something like forcing people to do it with no intrinsic motivation.

So if you wanna learn a math topic, please first know your motivation. Maybe there's a real-world use (Bayes' Theorem, nonlinear dynamics), or beautiful for its own sake (geometry, complex analysis). Whatever it is, Step 1: know your purpose.

Then Step 2: intuition first. Imagine a music class where students draw notes on bars for years and never hear an actual song. That's math class. If you're learning math topic X, first look up "[X] visual" or "[X] intuition" on YouTube or DuckDuckGo/Google. (My fave math resources are listed below)

Step 3: practice with feedback. Use spaced repetition (see above) to practice recalling facts, deep conceptual questions, and even quick practice problems. Yes, this is the boring step, but if you know your purpose & have the intuition, it'll feel and be meaningful.

My fave math resources:

I haven't personally used these resources much, but I've heard great things about them:

Writing

To make your writing flow: Therefore & But, Not "And Then". Novices write "this happens and then that happens and then this happens"... but that's boring... therefore you should connect things like: "this happens but that happens therefore this happens."

(and then...)

To make your writing concise: write your first draft, get its word count, then multiply that number by 0.9 (90%). Cut your writing down to that new word count. (I got this tip from On Writing Well. Also, Strunk & White is actually helpful?)

Finally, don't worry about writing with "style". Just write with substance. What you find substantial is what you find valuable. Your set of values is what makes your voice identifiable. Your voice is your style.

Therefore: substance creates style. Cook something nutritious and delicious.

Writing accessible explanations

In my answer on how to learn math, I listed the steps: 1) Purpose, 2) Intuition, then 3) Practice. How to teach math, or any topic, is just giving your learner those three things in that order.

Specific tips:

Inspiration for accessible explanations: See my above list of fave math resources. Also, Quanta Magazine and Educational YouTube.

To practice making accessible explanations, I recommend starting a blog or YouTube channel, then sharing with friends for feedback. (and maybe share on Reddit if you want to "grow your audience" or however one gets discovered on the internet these days)

Writing stories

Why did our ancestors tell stories, when there were other matters of survival? If stories are stress-relief, why do bad things happen in all fables? If stories are advice, why use fiction at all?

My hypothesis: stories do help us survive, beyond "mere" stress-relief. They do advise us on choices, consequences, and character growth. But why use fiction? For the same reason Newton imagined a cannonball orbiting the Earth, or Einstein imagined travelling beside a light beam: exaggerated fictions are how we explore deep facts. To paraphrase Picasso: β€œArt is a lie that tells the truth.”

So: what truth, that you learned the hard way, do you want to share the story way?

(What is a "story"? In short:

  1. Someone needs/wants something, but
  2. There's an inner/outer obstacle, therefore
  3. They act/learn/change,
  4. Repeat.

Don't tell your truth with an abstract sermon, but show it with the worked-example of a compressed life.)

Once you know your story's purpose, then you can apply technical craft. I recommend:

For practice & inspiration, here's places to get writing prompts. (I've personally used r/WritingPrompts a lot) Write short stories, and share them with friends for feedback!

Finally, I *anti-*recommend doing a Three-Act Structure or Hero's Journey or whatever. Don't make an "archetypical narrative". Make an atypical narrative, that's uniquely you.

Coding

If you can read & write, then you can code. If you can understand "if-then" sentences, the word "and", and this sentence referring to itself... then you understand conditionals, logic, and recursion, the foundations of programming.

Sadly, coding (and STEM) has this aura of "beware, mad geniuses only". So, let's break that aura with 1) small weekend projects, that are 2) actually useful and/or fun, and 3) you can create entirely online, for free, without downloading anything!

HTML: making sites. Go to Neocities.org, sign up for a free account, and do their interactive tutorial on HTML. By the end, you'll have your very own public website you can share. A manifesto? A personal page for your cat? Links to your favorite slashfics? The sky's the limit!

CSS: making sites look pretty. Download the Stylus add-on (Firefox, Chrome). [Note: Stylus with an "us", NOT Stylish. Stylish is malware!] Go to a website that distracts you, click the add-on, then "Write New Style". Paste the CSS code: body{ filter: grayscale(100%); }. This turns the site black & white, so it's less attention-grabbing! With CSS and Stylus, you can modify how websites look, to fit your needs – hide YouTube comments, hide the "approve cookies" popup, or make everything Comic Sans.

To learn CSS: Khan Academy's HTML/CSS course is free, with interactive tutorials!

JavaScript: making sites do things. Khan Academy's Intro to JavaScript is chockful of interactive tutorials where you draw & animate things with code. It's fun! And the foundations it teaches you apply to all modern programming languages, not just JavaScript.

Finally, the most important note – if you're ever unsure how to do something, do what the pros do: look it up online, copy-paste sample code, and stitch it together until your monster comes alive.

(Tools: for a code editor, I use Atom. For web hosting, I use Github Pages. For domain names, I use Namecheap.)

Making games

KEEP. YOUR SCOPE. SMALL.

KEEP YOUR SCOPE SMALL.

"Don't make your projects too big" is true for learning any art form, but aspiring gamedevs have it the worst, coz they're inspired by AAA games that took 100s of people years to make, so let me say it again:

KEEP. YOUR. SCOPE. S. M. A. L. L.

Okay, now, my fave resources on Game Design:

To start making games without knowing how to code – or even buying or downloading anything yet! – check out these tools:

For practice making SMALL-SCOPED games, check out itchΒ·io's list of game jams!

Going indie

First, I must admit that being a financially sustainable indie is 50% luck. (For the 50% skill, see my above advice on learning.)

But as poker players know, managing your luck is a skill. So, I recommend:

Good mental health

Ha ha if you figure out how to reliably maintain good mental health let me know.

I'm still struggling, but "my collected lessons so far" are in my interactive story, Adventures With Anxiety, and its companion essay, Mental Health Tips & Resources.

In sum:

So uh, yeah, good luck