The single most useful thing I learnt on my Artificial Intelligence MSc was how to learn. It’s a skill that has helped me considerably in my career, perhaps even shaped it. I’d argue this skill above all others is professionally the most important one I have.
It started as I was being taught Knowledge Engineering – the art of uncovering what makes an expert an expert. To do this I need to be able to draw out the expert’s knowledge, how they apply it and the mental models and skills they use. It requires a mix of Cognitive Psychology, critical thinking, charm and an ability to learn.
Learning is something we do intuitively to varying degrees. Most of what passes as learning is presented as variations on “monkey see, monkey do”, maybe with some role playing thrown in. It isn’t until you start trying to compress something that might have taken an expert years to learn into a few weeks of intense study that you realise how inadequate this is.
Being able to learn quickly is a useful skill, particularly in my line of work. I’m usually expected to become a proxy for the subject matter expert, so it’s important for me to know the domain (and as important to know what I don’t know – Rumsfeld was only half-joking). I’ve a shed load of tools and techniques I can bring to the party and if you’ve worked with me you’ve probably seen some of the mindmaps, influence diagrams, frames, sketches and whatever else that litter my notebooks and bags.
I think it also helps me adapt to change. Sure, I have the initial reaction like everyone else, but I quickly get past that and start looking towards the next challenge. If I stay I know I’ve the mental tools to learn the new environment quickly. If I decide to jump ship, well I’m ready for that too. Either way it doesn’t frighten me.
For me learning is no longer a passive thing that happens to me in a classroom. I’m no longer “just” reading things for the sake of it, nor skimming them out of boredom, or dealing with an overload of information. I actively learn. I engage with the process. I dig deep and find ways to constantly apply and reinforce the information I’m taking onboard to create new knowledge.
Without a shadow of a doubt learning to learn has been one of the best things that happened to my personal development. I just wish I’d learnt it at school.