I was talking to Darren Neimke on Live Messenger this weekend and he pointed me to his recent post about how his interests are changing, or perhaps more accurately, his learning habits. Like Darren I used to be a bit of a forum junkie as well, in fact if you search some of the oldest .NET mailing lists you will see quite a few posts by me, answering other peoples questions.
This can be an incredibly effective way to learn if the questions that you are answering challenge you to some degree. Where things begin to fall apart is when you are answering questions that you know off the top of your head at the expense of learning new things that stimulate you.
I like to visualise this as a pressure problem, lets call it knowledge pressure. Imagine if you will that everything you learn is being fed into a pressurised container on the left hand side via one valve, and all the knowledge you share with your peers flows out the right hand-side through another valve. In a perfectly balanced system the amount of knowledge that flows in would match the amount that flows out – this never happens, our learning process is not reliable enough to ensure that so what tends to happen is that we fluctuate between high and low (or sometimes even a vacuum) state.
Often when you pick up a new technology you can very quickly end up in a high knowledge pressure state. This might sound counter intuitive but stick with me. When you don’t know anything, you can’t share anything and so you are practiced at being tight lipped and focusing on the new things that you are trying to learn. Because over time you are sharing less than you are learning you build to a high knowledge pressure state at which point you can’t do anything but start to share your knowledge – often there is so much pressure that the apparent speed with which you share knowledge is high (note that speed and volume are different things).
Over time you start to spend more time sharing your knowledge which distracts you from the learning process and what ends up happening is that you can end up in a low knowledge pressure state (where you are sharing more than you are learning, but the knowledge isn’t escaping with the same amount of omph).
Being in one state or the other is natural, it is a cycle that will probably repeat your whole life although I suspect some people have a preference for one state or the other. For someone who makes a living by learning and then sharing knowledge it is important to manage this state and make the highs (where you loose money because you aren’t “out there”) and lows (where you just sprout crap) a little less extreme – you want to be in the green band where you are constantly learning, but getting out there often enough to let folks know what you are doing.
Perhaps one of the biggest traps is that you don’t necessarily know when you are in a low pressure situation (it is very hard for us to objectively guage ourselves) so we rely on our friends and the people we work with to tap us on the shoulder and tell us to “go pressurize”. Personally I’d prefer to the be on the higher pressure side because the information I share is good, but I’m still taking care of myself.