Make it a habit to always share what you learn

Personal TILs, longer reflections and how-to guides can improve productivity, help someone feel better about themselves, or even change someone's perspective on a subject.

An important default in my life — something that took me a while to build a habit of doing — is sharing what I'd just learned, no matter how small that learning is, and sharing this to as wide an audience as feasible.

Let me illustrate this with a recent example from work.

I was implementing a feature recently that involved regularly inspecting data from several tables in one of our databases that contained over 30 tables. I started feeling the pain of switching from viewing one table to another using Sequel Ace (a program to visualise SQL databases) and when I poked around the user interface to see if I could make this workflow easier for myself, I discovered that you could "pin" specific tables and they would appear at the top of what was normally an alphabetically-sorted list of table names.

Before pinning, I would have to search the list of tables by hand and click to view its data. Then, if I needed to view another table's data, I would repeat the same thing by searching for the other table. What happens then when I later needed to switch back to the first table? Well, I had to remember what the table name was, search the list again, and then click. I was relying on my brain to hold yet another variable (the name of the tables I was working with).

After pinning, I would no longer need to remember which tables were important to me because they would be displayed at the top of the list. Sequel Ace would help me remember what I was doing, providing relevant tables to me with just one click.

It's a simple design pattern that is implemented in all kinds of apps, yet I'd only just discovered that it existed on Sequel Ace. This feature saved me a lot of time and brain power and I got my work done a little faster and with a little less pain.

The way I process little wins like this is to picture myself as an avatar having gained XP (experience points) like in a role-playing game. It always gives me a rush!

Will I look stupid?

Anyway, at this point, my avatar stands still in my mind and some thoughts start streaming in.

Should I share this with my colleagues? It might be helpful to some of them!

Hmm... maybe not. It's probably just me being inattentive to my tools to have only just discovered this. I can't be alone in realising this nifty hack.

But it's plausible that ONE other person didn't know about it and could benefit from hearing about it...

Okay, I should share this. But where?

Probably just in my team Slack channel with ~20 people? That way I don't need to risk making myself look stupid for thinking that a small discovery like this is even worth sharing.

I would, in the past, just close this stream of thought here and share learnings like this Sequel Ace table-pinning thing with a small audience consisting of people I already know. I might also tweet about it just to shout into the void and wishfully hope that someone might benefit from it.

But ever since I joined Shopify where the employee headcount is in the five digits and people view themselves as being part of a Shopifolk community, I've somehow started to think about this differently. Now I've inserted this to the end of that stream of thought:

Hmm... but if the conversion rate of has_this_knowledge (0 → 1) remains the same due to the randomness of our general discovery processes, then the logical thing to do is to share it with as wide an audience as possible. If I shared it with 10 people and the conversion rate is 10 percent, that's 1 person who learned something new. If I shared it with 1000 people, that's 100 people who learned something new!

Of course, I should still bear in mind that "as wide an audience as possible" comes with a cost. I should strike a tradeoff between reach and effort. A presentation to the whole company would take a ludicrous amount of effort whereas a self-contained Slack message with a GIF in a Slack channel actively perused by 1000 people has a much more reasonable reach-effort ratio.

Extending the metaphor of an avatar gaining experience points, sharing my learnings with people is like giving them dragon bones to bury after I've slained the dragon for them. In the old school MMORPG game Runescape that I used to play too much, the avatar burying bones gains XP too.

So anyway, that's what I've started doing regularly, and the results are reinforcing my belief in sharing even the littlest things that I've just learned.

Who knew how few knew that you could pin database tables for quick access?
Another example of sharing my learning that helped 32 others learn.

To be sure, sometimes it's a miss, and nobody responds to the share. I sometimes feel sad when that happens, but whenever I notice myself feeling sorry for sharing something, I let out a kindly smile and tell myself, who cares? You still learned something.

Why it's rewarding

I find this rewarding because there is joy in sharing something useful with somebody. Every :shocked:, :wat:, and :til: emoji that someone reacts to the post with sounds like an "omg thanks I'm going to use this from now onwards and my life will be X percent better."

Another reward is that by preparing to share something, I'm forced to distil it down to its essence, which not only requires me to understand the thing I'm about to share, but it also nudges me to ask, "is there something else related to this that's perhaps worth exploring?" Like in the case of pinning tables in Sequel Ace, as I was writing the Slack message to the #dev-til channel, I began to wonder if there might be an even better way to do this, like with split windows. (I didn't find a better way in this case.)

Selfishly, this habit of sharing what I learn regularly is also something that has helped me get noticed by people in positions that could influence the trajectory of my career. So there's that if you're looking for a utilitarian reason to start doing it yourself, I suppose!

Sometimes I'd see someone posting their learning and it'd be something that I'd already known. But you know what? In these situations, while I don't gain knowledge, I get comforted by knowing that there are all kinds of things that people don't know and that is okay. This is primary reason why I keep blogging - who knows what effects a post will have on someone?

We keep a lot of valuable lessons to ourselves because we believe others probably already know them (this is so simple, surely people already know!), and this amounts to many missed opportunities for helping one another grow. These personal "TILs" or longer reflections and "how to" guides can improve productivity, help someone feel better about themselves, or even change someone’s perspective on a subject.

I'll close this off with a final thought: it's interesting to see how I've only started to consider sharing my learnings to as wide an audience as possible after a big-enough audience appeared before me by chance (i.e. at my digital workplace at Shopify). Prior to that, I'd been mostly shouting into the void via my blog and my small Twitter account, unconcerned about whether it reaches people. It's thus becoming clear that I should try to build up an audience outside of work so that I can amplify the impact of sharing the things that I will continue to learn until the day I die. An email list and a regularly dispatched newsletter seems like a good way to do this.

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