Don’t Wait – Look It Up!

This will be the first of many posts about my journey of ‘self-learning’. I have issues with the terminology, which is a post in itself, being that my study of programming, while without any formal education still depends on the work and instruction of others through books and and how-tos. In this post I explore the waning of interest that can follow ignoring even a slight confusion over basic concepts.

Adventures of an Autodidact

Recently, I completed Rob Percival’s excellent Udemy course: The Complete Web Developer Course – Build 14 Websites (which apparently now has a second version). I’ve spent the better part of a year studying Python and recently decided to delve more into the front-end of things as I began exploring frameworks like Django.

I was chugging along quite nicely but then began to feel a wane in interest, in the initial excitement that I had felt. By that time I was into JQuery and really enjoying the material, but not necessarily looking forward to having the time to sit down and watch the videos.

At some point I realized I was still having trouble with the concept of the position property in CSS and I had not really grasped the use of it as I had been trying to figure out how to how center images on the minecraft website I am building for my kids and when I saw him use it in subsequent videos. However I chose to ignore that lack of comprehension, figuring I would look it up later when it became more relevant. Finally, curiosity and the way my mind just kept circling back to it every time I saw it used made me go back to those lessons in the course and spend some more time on the interactive part of the W3Schools site above and at last I felt like I had a working grasp of the property. It then made sense enough so that I felt like I could use it in practice. I think it was the ‘relative’ value that was really throwing me off.

Suddenly, I felt that spark again, that desire to stop whatever I was doing and continue with the course and practicing with my own code. That moment I recalled a quote I had read many years ago that stated that your mind essentially shuts off to anything you read after a word or concept that you do not understand. I remembered the gist of the quote because I have many times realized it to be true. So much so that my primary auto-didactic method is focusing on understanding terminology first as a basis for learning complex concepts. In other words if I’m having trouble understanding a concept I focus first on the terminology and build from there. Basically this helps form the right question, which is the only way to find the right answer.

After some research I found that the quote is from L Ron Hubbard’s book Dianetics (which I must have looked over in college many many many years ago):

““When reading a book, be very certain that you never go past a word you do not fully understand. The only reason a person gives up a study or becomes confused or unable to learn is because he or she has gone past a word that was not understood.”

I have found this to be especially true while learning Python. Every time I lost interest I realized I was having trouble with a term. First it was the difference between methods and functions. Then the concept of classes. Now as I delve into web development I find myself stumbling over the idea of a script versus an application and an application server versus a framework. The use of the word ‘versus’ here is probably not ideal but the problem generally forms itself this way in the beginning. Basically it’s not an simply an issue of understanding the basic definition of a concept or term, but how it relates to other concepts.

When the issue is noticed and acknowledged, usually for me in the form of a fogginess and tendency to keep coming back to a certain idea, and once that ‘blurriness’ becomes more defined by going back and spending time to understand an idea’s relationships, the concept takes shape and becomes that piece of the puzzle that makes many others fall into place around it. It’s really a wonderful feeling and one of those rewarding moments in the journey of education.

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