Self-Education: How to Continue Learning for Life

I once heard the phrase: “College is just learning how to learn”. After finishing a master’s program and starting work at Tocci as a Virtual Design + Construction Specialist, the saying has proven to be so very true. I studied architecture for five years, and while I don’t work in architecture per se, I found that my education gave me the ability to absorb, process, and seek new information. Learning is a skill, and there are techniques that can be implemented to enhance education. To effectively learn, one needs to practice organizing information, asking the right questions, and taking advantage of self-education opportunities.

Information is often delivered to us in a chaotic stream that must be untangled in order to be used effectively. In the construction industry, there are a plethora of educational opportunities (i.e. lunch and learns, training sessions, conferences, and workshops). While these all offer useful information, it is necessary to understand the value of it. Furthermore, who is it valuable to, and how should it be shared? If it’s important for your purposes, the challenge is storing the information in a place that’s easily accessible. An even greater challenge is remembering that the information even exists when it’s needed. Sharing your knowledge is the essence of healthy communication, and every team should strive to perfect it. Recording meeting minutes, lessons learned, and setting up recurring touch bases are all great examples of how a team can share knowledge, thus teaching each other.

In my first few months at Tocci, I wrote down everything I could. I went through notepad after notepad until eventually I was drowning in a sea of paper. I knew that I had to find a way to organize this information before I lost my mind! My filing system is always a work in progress, but I’m now able to catch all my action items, questions, and useful information that would have otherwise slipped through the cracks. Each person’s methodology will be different, but a successful personal organization system will translate into delivering information to others in a concise manner.

When there isn’t a designated platform to obtain new information, it might be necessary to ask questions, and that’s not as simple as it sounds. In construction, the Project Managers and Superintendents will likely be the greatest sources of knowledge, but they won’t have time to let every trainee be their apprentice. Thus, when given the opportunity to speak with them, questions need to be strategic.

In Shu Hattori’s novel “The McKinsey Edge”, he describes a double-clicking theory where essential information is given and listeners can “double click” to hear more about specific topics and ask questions; this method can be implemented both by the speaker or by the listener. As a speaker, using the method saves the listener from hearing information they don’t need, while listeners can pluck out details that a hurried cohort might not include. Hattori’s method can help generate penetrative questions by getting right to the heart of a subject.

As a newer hire, I am constantly jumping from project to project and doing whatever task is necessary to help. Anytime I am introduced to a new project, there are countless questions that come up. Many of them are out of plain curiosity, and their answers provide no real value to the task at hand. It has taken time to discern which questions are important to ask. There have been several times when I asked a question only to regret it seconds later because I knew I could easily acquire the information elsewhere. This awareness should be balanced with grace: no questions are dumb questions, and any questions are better than no questions.

Learning is not always a pleasant experience, especially when the path is unpaved. Every day, construction presents unique challenges that require creative solutions and on-the-fly thinking. It’s impossible to fully teach someone everything they’ll need to know about construction. Therefore, much of the learning is self-initiated. Most colleges set up students to be lifelong learners, and that’s the exact approach needed in the construction industry. When gaps in knowledge form and questions need answering, there’s an amazing opportunity to self-educate.

Self-education can take the form of online learning, reading books, or contacting experts. In the VDC department, it often looks like browsing computer software manuals or sitting down with someone from another department to pick their brain. Self-education is a win-win because the project, team, and company are gaining direct value from your knowledge. This instills a sense of empowerment and confidence; if you can teach yourself to do anything, then the limits in life will be few.

In our society, education is viewed as a means to an end. Our reasons for education could be to obtain a job, get promoted, or to be able to know how to do something cool or useful. The truth is, education is a lifelong process that never ceases. Once this is realized, methods can be used to maximize one’s educational journey.

Click here for a summary of Shu Hattori’s work, “The McKinsey Edge”.

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