Learning to be Badass

Kathy Sierra’s book, Badass: Making Users Awesome, is a mind-altering look at creating things that serve and empower the people who use them. It might be an app, talk, book, design, tangible product, API, class, or most anything else. Success isn't people basking in the glow of what we make, it's what we make basking in the glow of what people experience and achieve with it.

Along the way, the book explores what motivates us to learn and why sometimes we’re successful and other times we’re not. In the context of the book, these questions concern how to help people using a product (from cameras to snowboards) overcome hurdles big and small to become badass. Not badass at using the settings on the camera, but a badass photographer.

Thanks to the book, I look at my day-to-day work differently. The more I read, though, the more fascinated I'm with her insights into learning.

I love to learn, but that doesn’t mean it always goes well. Most of my learning happens while working on something and involves solving the problem directly in front of me. These incremental bits of research and problem solving are satisfying, but there are big things I want to learn and progress in those cases can be unsteady and intermittent. A good example is my ongoing quest to learn to program.

Learn to program is a large, nebulous task, which is one reason that progress is difficult. There certainly isn’t a shortage of help available, though, from books and bootcamps to courses promising various combinations of badges and certificates. I’m lucky to know helpful people who are remarkably good at it, too.

Why are we able to master some things and other times, we struggle? Kathy’s book explains what makes success more likely.

First, intrinsic motivation is more important than extrinsic motivation. Rewards and recognition are a nice boost, but pursuing a true passion wholeheartedly helps us get past the inevitable struggles.

Second, our brains are wired to care about just-in-time knowledge, not just-in-case. I immediately thought of the number of times I’ve read a chapter about a programming problem I’m unlikely to face for months. Unsurprisingly, I lose interest not longer after. Learning shouldn’t get too far ahead of practice.

Which leads to the most important point: how we practice matters. It’s not just putting in hours, even 10,000 of them. “Practice makes permanent,” both good and bad. The difference is deliberate practice: find the next achievable goal and become reliably good at it in a small number of practice sessions. If that’s not possible, break the problem down further and try again. When you’re successful, move up to the next challenge and repeat.

These ideas have changed how I approach learning. It's not easier, but it's more rewarding, enjoyable, and addictive. Goals are smaller and more specific and progress more consistent. Each step forward carries with it an invaluable sense of momentum. I'm beginning to understand how the pieces fit together.