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Jumping Into the Deep End: a Guide to Learning by Doing

How to get out of your comfort zone and learn how to do new things.

A little over a year ago I was fresh out of college and starting my first full-time job here at Palantir. I had a strong foundation provided by my education, but I was still relatively new to Drupal, let alone to the working world. Of course, like any new job, there was no way I was going to start with all of the things I needed to know to complete the tasks assigned to me right off the bat.

Fast forward to now and I have had a wide variety of experiences including a complex XML migration and a lot of module development. My confidence is growing stronger with every project under my belt.

Here’s the thing: while I’ve learned a lot during this time, I have always been a little scared of trying new things. With my job at Palantir, staying in my comfort zone wasn’t really an option. It wouldn’t be good for my work, my co-workers, our clients; not to mention my own growth.

On the upside, I’m newish, so I’ve had plenty of practice trying things with which I have little to no experience. Herein lies the potential problem: If I give myself the opportunity to ‘chicken out’ of doing something, I often do. Instead, I’ve decided to challenge myself by jumping into the deep end to see if I can swim.

Here are a few observations I’ve made about learning by doing during my first year at Palantir:

  • Jump in; don’t wait for someone push you. It is way less scary to try something new when you feel like you have some control over the situation.
  • Before you jump, however, do some research. Grab some floaties, if you will, and make sure you have the right tools. You don’t want to go swimming in your jeans.
  • Now we are ready to try swimming. Take a stab at it, see how far you can get on your own. Get an idea of what this whole swimming thing is about.
  • You might get some water up your nose, but that’s okay. If you get it right the first time, either you are very good at this, or something is not quite right and you don’t have enough experience to recognize it. Make mistakes, and you’ll learn far more from them than you will from your lucky successes.
  • When it feels like you might be starting to flounder, ask for help. After all, there’s certainly nothing wrong with having a lifeguard around. In fact, asking for help does not make you weak – it’s smart. Different perspectives on what you’re doing are not only important, they could be a game changer.
  • Once you feel like you’ve caught your breath and have a better idea of how to keep your head above the water, get back in. This time around, you’re armed with more knowledge and have a much better chance at accomplishing your goal.
  • Now that you’re feeling a bit more comfortable, ask for feedback. Your stroke can only be improved upon by having someone else critique your work.
  • Don’t make the mistake of comparing yourself to others. Just because the person next to you is doing the butterfly, that doesn’t mean you need to do anything other than get from one side of the pool to the other. It’s not a competition.
  • Finally, don’t give up. This might be a no-brainer, but it’s vitally important. You will never, ever learn if you simply get out of the pool when you get discouraged.

Swimming metaphors aside, I find this approach to learning new things very effective, especially as most of the learning I do is on the fly these days. I am fortunate enough to have the support of my co-workers and the resources of a large and opinionated community who make sure I am never underwater for long. There is always someone who has an knowledge of what I’m working on; whether that’s a new programming tool, how best to interact with clients or peers, or something else. Your local watering hole, if you will, where you know you’ll be safe.

Sure, I have a lot to learn, but I intend to take a splash in as many pools as I can while I do.

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