Learning is not a spectator sport

If you want to learn effectively, you’ll have to accept that learning isn’t a spectator sport. It’s a contact sport. In order to boost your know-how and with it your career, find a group that helps you reach your goals.

I don’t doubt that in this day and age, we have more learning resources available to ourselves than anyone ever had. There are countless video guides, blog tutorials and tech wikis only waiting to be consumed. And that’s the rub. Consuming content just isn’t the same as learning. Acquiring knowledge on your own is a challenging task. On the other hand, there is ample scientific evidence that learning with others can be more effective and, let’s not forget, more fun.

Learning faster

When you study your learning materials seriously, you’ll inevitably end up with questions. Ideally, you’d have someone who you can ask right at the time they come up. But that’s usually only possible in a classroom or a live course setting. The second best situation is to have a group of other students with whom you can share your questions. Maybe someone else already found the answers; and if not, you can find them as a team. In both cases, you’ll be able to continue your learning confident that you didn’t leave any gaps in your understanding that might turn into a roadblock later.

Sharing ideas

You’ll generate much more than just questions, though. Effective learning result in lots of insight. When you get to share this insight with peers, it will not only be bonus learning material for the whole group, it’ll also add to your own sense of accomplishment. This exchange of ideas makes learning a lot more fun. Once it gets going, it can turn into a flywheel effect of motivation for everyone to find more things to share with the group.

Support and accountability

Self-study sounds like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? You get all the learning materials, and you process them in your own time. In reality, your chances of success with self-guided learning can be pretty slim. At least, that’s my experience. Please do not make me check my email archive to see how many self-study courses I’ve signed up for but never even started, let alone finished. Life gets in the way, I know, that’s not the problem. The problem is getting back on track again after the coast is clear again. There are simply so many things competing for our time and attention that we might forget to continue where we left off.

Another challenge is not getting discouraged when we’re having trouble understanding a particular concept. Depending on your situation, you might find it hard to muster the gumption to push through.

Sharing your progress regularly with a group of peers can be a great help with not letting your learning fall by the wayside. You can ask them to keep you accountable, and reciprocate accordingly. And a group that gives you empathy and encouragement when you’re feeling frustrated is worth its weight in gold.

Different perspectives

In a past newsletter, I mentioned the myth of a person who marooned on an island with only a chess board, and who returned ten years later as a grand master. This story tries to suggest that all it takes to master a topic is time. Which is not true at all. Among other things, mastery requires looking at a topic from many angles. But often, we’re limited by our own blind spots and biases. It’s in the discussion with others where we get to learn different perspectives that we couldn’t come up with by ourselves.


Finally, on a meta level, learning effectively with a group is a learning opportunity in itself. It allows you to gain communication and collaboration skills while you’re doing your own learning. For example, you’ll improve your ability to ask effective questions. You’ll adopt problem-solving skills demonstrated by someone else. The list of benefits is endless.

But there’s one benefit that I’d like to highlight : the possibility of developing relationships, even friendships, that will have long-lasting value well beyond any specific learning goal.

In a word: When you go on your next learning journey, try and share it with others. As the saying goes: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

For your own collaborative learning, join The Server Room!

Boosting our progress, sharing insight, keeping each other accountable, eliminating blind spots, improving communication, and fostering valuable relationships is all part of the mission of The Server Room, my DevOps learning community. In conversations on the private forum and in events like Hot Seats, Community Workshops and casual Hangouts, we help each other grow, and grow ourselves in turn.

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