Whether your an aspiring entrepreneur trying to start a company, a budding researcher looking to leave your mark on your discipline, an investor trying to properly educate yourself, or someone entirely different, there’s do doubt that building a strong technical competence in your respective field is invaluable.
Having strong fundamentals and a grasp on the technical aspects of a discipline is what separates the speculators from the seasoned investors, the research apprentices from the experienced scientists, and the basement entrepreneurs from the innovative visionaries.
Given this importance, it’s incredibly valuable to be able to efficiently build technical competence in whatever discipline you become interested in.
If you’re quickly able to develop new skills and learn as new interests arise, your expertise will grow rapidly and you’ll develop a powerful skillset.
Such an ability is especially useful with the current rate of innovation going on in hundreds of fields.
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I’ve been exposed to many strategies for developing technical competence through my own learning and through my experience at The Knowledge Society.
I’ve also had many opportunities to experiment with these methods through my own learning process — I’ve explored and gone deep into full-stack web development, artificial intelligence, blockchains and crypto-development, and neuroscience and I’ve read extensively about several other fields.
Through this iteration, I’ve put together a (developing) framework that I, along with hundreds (and probably thousands) of other people, have used to develop technical competence in a variety of disciplines.
This framework is by no means completely original and is more an articulation of the most valuable aspects of learning frameworks like that of The Knowledge Society and observations around what actually works and what’s important from my own experience.
My goal is to provide a framework general enough to be relevant to a variety of technical disciplines, while remaining specific enough to be targeted and useful for any individuals process.
With all of this in mind, we can jump into the framework itself.
The framework for building technical competence
Before we dive into the specifics of the framework, it’s important to cover what we’re aiming at.
The main objective of this framework is to outline a process that will lead to both technical competence and maximized opportunities.
These means that we’re optimizing for both competence and tangible results. Competence alone is not enough if no one knows that you’re competent.
Unless your looking to go solo all the way to your goal, you’re going to need other people to work with, and in this case, your going to need something to show for all your work besides your own reassurance that you know what you’re talking about.
For this reason, we’ll be putting a focus on both learning and creating in your learning process as both are important and serve their purpose (content not only serves as a means of establishing your competence, but also helps to solidify your learning).
Now that we’ve clarified what we’re trying to achieve, we can dive into the process of actually make this happen.
1. Resource-based learning
The first step to building technical competence in a field is to try to dive deep into the available technical resources.
The goal of this stage is simply to gather as much understanding of a field as you can through publicly available sources (ie reading books, research papers, and articles and watching videos).
With the incredible variety of available knowledge online thats available for free to everyone, created by experts from every edge of the field, the easiest way to introduce yourself to any discipline is to commit time to exploring these available resources.
It’s important that this learning is done purely with the intention of understanding, rather than treating it as “another step in the process.”
This type of mentality will spoil your motivation to genuinely learn and usually leads to burnout, so it’s important to consciously avoid it early on.
I often find that it’s helpful to focus my attention solely on the resource-based learning stage initially without thinking about other steps.
We can further divide this process into a few steps, which each serve their own purpose.
- Learn from broad/introductory content — In most fields, there are great introductory resources that go over a large breadth of information and give you a landscape of the entire field. Usually, these can be found on YouTube in the form of hour long “complete guides” or “topic overviews” and in long overview research papers.
These are incredibly valuable early on as they give you a sense of the various areas you may be exploring in the coming weeks and they help you to feel out the scope of the content that you’re dealing with.
Getting a broad-scope overview of a field can also help you to quickly overcome the Dunning-Kruger effect where beginner’s tend to overestimate how competent they are in a discipline — which is important because this often gets in the way of reaching true technical competence. When you understand the scope of a field, you can truly internalize everything that you don’t know and you know where you stand as far as your understanding.
- Go through a breadth of specific content — After you feel that you have a sufficient grasp on the general landscape of your discipline, its beneficial to start diving into more specific content on some of the various areas that you learned about in the overview. Developing this specified knowledge on less surface-level topics is what contributes to a deep technical understanding of a field.
The goal of this step is to get a deep technical understanding on almost every major area of the discipline. It’s important to consider all the major areas that you want to learn about. Usually this includes most of the areas touched on in the introductory content that you used as well as any current innovations in the field. Having a sound understanding of all of these relevant areas will prove invaluable later when producing content yourself and interacting with experts.
One note with this step: when I talk about getting a specific understanding in the important areas, I don’t mean you need to meticulously learn about every detail in every subdomain of the field, since that’s obviously unrealistic and unsustainable. The goal is more to understand and be able to talk competently about any major area in your discipline (reading a few research papers or watching a few videos on an area is usually sufficient if you understand the content).
- Look for opposing perspectives — This is something to keep in mind throughout your learning process. Many fields have central topics that are commonly debated and entertain multiple expert perspectives. On these topics, research papers and videos tend to have a tilt to one side of an argument. If you recognize this, it’s important to actively searching for opposing view points on such issues. When you balance your understanding of both sides of an issue, you truly gain an understanding of the full picture of the topic.
- Focus on specific interests — After going through a sufficient amount of specific content, you will likely have a strong understanding of the fundamentals and details of a discipline. At this point, I often find it most valuable to dive deeper into a very specified topic in the field that I am personally interested in. This can mean reading books about the topic or reading further research on the specified area.
Building a specified expertise in a smaller sub-discipline of your field is valuable as it allows you to develop an understanding of a much more unique area, which serves many purposes (including content creation which we’ll talk about soon). This is analogous to how PhD’s spend time diving deep into an extremely specific area of their field (although this is of course much less rigorous than a PhD, the reasoning is similar).
While going through these steps, it’s important to make sure that you’re able to get good content to go through for the sake of your learning. Here are some tips on sourcing your resource-based learning:
- Make sure you’re using high quality content — Remember, you’re optimizing for learning, not time spent learning. Going through bad quality content is a big waste of your time. Finding high-standards resources is important. Identifying high quality content is a trained skill but as long as you have this intention in mind, you can start to develop an eye for good resources.
To give you a sense for what high quality looks like, here’s a great introductory video on artificial intelligence, and here’s a high-quality introductory research paper on psychedelics.
- Keep an eye out for competence — In every discipline, there are standard teachers and researchers, and then there are people with a deep understanding of the nuances that make the field valuable and interesting. These people often produce the most valuable content in the field (Richard Feynman in physics, for example), and are worth following/learning from.
- Use books to your advantage — As I mentioned earlier, books are a great way to get deep specific knowledge on an area of interest. A good strategy is to search for good/reputed books in your field. From there you can choose one that looks interesting to you (choosing something interesting is important if you want to ensure that you stay motivated to continue learning).
After you’ve chosen your book, Library Genesis is a great resource to get your book for free. It has almost every book you could want available for download as an ebook or pdf for free.
- Use google scholar to find research papers — Finally, Google Scholar is a great resource for finding research papers in any discipline. A simple search of the name of your field should result in good overview and introductory resources as well as recent developments. More specific searches yield more targeted results to your interests.
Using these strategies, you’ll be able to source high quality resources for your learning and develop a strong technical understanding of your field.
2. Content creation
Along with learning through publicly available resources, it’s also important to produce your own content on your discipline of interest.
As mentioned previously, this serves to create public evidence of your competence which is very important when maximizing your opportunities. Creating content yourself is also what turns you from a thinker to a doer and gives you true technical competence.
In short, content creation locks in your learnings, allows you to demonstrate your understanding and abilities, enables you to share your learnings and help others, and provides you with a medium through which you can share and create from your own ideas.
Thus, creating content is a completely irreplaceable part of developing technical competence in any field, and especially important for capitalizing on your learning (as we will see in the next section).
It’s also important to note that content creation doesn’t follow chronologically from resource-based learning.
You aren’t meant to follow these steps strictly and in chronological order, moving onto one step only after you have perfected the previous one. Instead, content creation and resource-based learning should be used synergistically to maximize your learning.
Such content creation can be divided into several avenues that help you to develop technical competence:
- Simple/general explanatory content — Usually this comes in the form of writing articles or creating videos on topics that you’re learning about, and is fit for resource-based learning stages where you are learning about more generalized and surface level content. Creating introductory articles of your own or overview articles on a slightly more specified topics is a great way to get the ball rolling and demonstrate your understanding of the topic.
- Specified/novel explanatory content — As you start to become more knowledgeable about the subject and you go into more specific subdomains, you will be able to start creating more novel content. As you go into more specified areas, there will be less available content on the topics already available online and you will be able to take advantage of these opportunities to create content on new areas. This is valuable for you as you will have created truly unique content.
Additionally, you can write down your own thoughts or reflection on a specific aspect of a discipline as you are able to provide unique insights through this method. Creating such specified content is one of the best ways to demonstrate the depth of your competence.
- Domain specific creation — In some domains, the most you will be able to do realistically is create explanatory content on the discipline. For example, if you’re researching genetics, you likely won’t initially have access to a lab and so you likely can’t run actual experiments.
However, in many fields, especially software engineering related ones like web development, machine learning, blockchain development, etc. you have direct access to everything you need to create. In these scenarios, it’s extremely important to build projects specific to your discipline (ideally, you make several). For example, if I were trying to learn about machine learning, I would code several machine learning algorithms and try to make them publicly available (which I did, you can check it all out on my website!)
This is arguably the most important type of creation as it shows direct experience in the field. You can demonstrate your technical experience through your projects and explanations of them. This is also your opportunity to dive into specific technical aspects like implementing theory into code and other such practices.
When creating content, there are a few things to keep in mind to ensure that you’re putting forward your best work:
- Strive for novelty — When creating content, it’s optimal to try to create something uniquely valuable. This doesn’t mean that you need to propose your own earth shattering ideas, but you should at least try to put some kind of unique spin on the topics you cover or deliver them in a unique way. This ensures that you put some unique thought into your content which both strengthens your learning process and is more impressive.
- Do something unique but not obscure — On the other side of the spectrum, you want to make sure that for the most part, your content is relevant to a significant subset of people. This means that it most cases, you should try to specify your topic but not choose something so obscure that it will only be relevant to a few people.
- Create for your audience — When making content, it’s important to keep your audience in mind. In practice, this means several things. First, it’s important that your content is relatively understandable (within reason) for your intended audience. This means that unless your creating a very targeted piece of content, you should try to do your best to keep thing understandable and explain jargon.
Additionally, writing for interest as well as education is important. If you can make your content interesting, it provides a much more enjoyable experience than drab explanations, which leaves a much better impression of you.
- Go above and beyond — With content, there’s so many possibilities for what you can create. Thinking outside the box in this respect can lead to creating some extremely impressive projects that also act as great ways to practice cross-disciplinary skills or show your competence.
This involves thinking outside the box and it’s difficult to quantify. However, it often involves using other skills you’ve developed to benefit your learning process in your current discipline. For example, if you’re great at making websites and writing, and you happen to be learning about space technology, maybe you could make a cool learning website with all your articles on space tech with a nice design and interactive resources to help people learn.
Sometimes these types of projects can be intimidating, but they’re often the most satisfying to complete, and even one of them can leave an incredible impression on anyone who sees them.
Through the combination of resource-based learning and content creation, you can steadily build up your understanding of a subject to get to high technical competence with completely self-guided learning.
The last (but not chronologically last) step to this process involves reaching out to people who are already qualified and experience in the area that you are interested in.
The purpose of this step is to take advantage of the hard work you’ve put into learning and producing content to maximize your opportunities in the field. Ideally, when reaching out to people (via email), you are able to eventually setup calls with them (I’ll talk about how to do this in a bit).
Reaching out to people in your field of interest has many potential benefits and is incredibly valuable:
- Exposes you to what the paths to success look like — By talking to people who are already successful in the field, you are able to see what it takes to succeed in the area, as you can see what path they took to get to where they are.
- Exposes you to potential mentorship — Often, if you are young, enthusiastic, and ambitious (and show it during your call, respectfully of course), people will be impressed with you and will be open to helping (most people love to help when they know that their helps is making a difference). Continued correspondence in such a manor can often lead to mentor relationships which is of course extremely valuable when learning.
- Builds up your network — Reaching out to people is often a great way to build up your network in a field. You can maximize this potential by taking note of any recommendations people give you of people to talk to, and also proactively asking people on call if they think there would be anyone else that would be good to talk to for you. I won’t go into how valuable building up networks is (since its a well-written about topic and I’m sure you can imagine), but the value of this is significant.
- Creates serendipity — This is the most intangible but still very prominent benefit of reach outs: by introducing other people into your learning process, you open the door to a wide variety of opportunities. When competent people see that you are trying to or are successfully becoming competent (which they can tell through your content), they are often willing to help in many ways, including ways that you often wouldn’t imagine. It’s not uncommon for qualified people to get great connections, help, advice, and even job offers (although I’m not making any promises) through such interactions.
Now that we’ve covered the benefits of doing reach outs, you may be wondering who to reach out to. There aren’t any limits on this of course, but here are some ideas to get you started:
- Famous/well-reputed industry experts that are often talked about in the learning content that you’ve seen. Don’t underestimate the potential of cold-outreach, even extremely famous people have been known to respond to cold-emails given the right approach.
- Researchers and authors in the field, especially those who’s content you have gone through are great to reach out to as you have something in common (you both know about something they’ve worked on).
- Content creators that have made videos or articles that you’ve seen are also a great place to look for people to reachout to.
Finally, we can discuss how to actually go about reaching out to these people, because it may not seem obvious at first.
They key here is to make use of all of the content that you’ve worked so hard to create as well as staying genuine and doing your research on who you’re reaching out to.
There are a couple proven strategies to use when doing reach-outs to get the highest response rates possible:
- Ask for feedback on some of your relevant content — This involves sending them a relevant piece of content that you’ve created and asking for their feedback or advice on it. People love to help and are often more than willing to offer feedback to you, which can help get the conversation started.
- Respond to their own content — If you’ve read something that they’ve written about, its often great to express your interest in their writing and ask (intelligent) questions about it or get their thoughts on a topic.
- Create content based on their content — Combining the last two strategies, you can even create a piece of content explaining or based on something they’ve created and ask them for their feedback. I would imagine this one has a relatively high response rate (although there’s no hard statistics to go by).
With all of these methods and any others that you come up with, it’s important to keep in mind that you want to express your genuine interest and differentiate yourself. Many of the people you will be reaching out to likely get many emails from similar people and only respond to a few, so you have to think about what they want to see (not some overly professional template email, but something unique and genuine).
With this in mind, you’ll be able to periodically reach out to people in your field of interest, building up your network and making the most of your opportunities.
Some closing thoughts
By following these three simple processes: resource-based learning, content creation, and outreach, you can develop a very strong technical competence in any discipline, establish your reputation, and maximize your opportunities.
This framework has been used by many people (many under the age of 20 or even 16) to gain a depth of technical expertise and get jobs in some of the most innovative industries today.
With the right focus and effort, I hope that these strategies can help you to develop whatever skills you hope to acquire and pursue your goals.
If you found this guide valuable, make sure to share it with anyone else that you think may benefit from it!
If you like this type of content and want to learn more, or are interested in these topics in general, make sure to reach out to me and connect with me on Twitter and Linkedin, I love meeting/talking to new people!
That’s all for now, thanks for reading!