Mentorship: the key to accelerated learning

by Mat Budelman

“Only the foolish learn from experience—the wise learn from the experience of others.”
Romanian Proverb

For me, the past two-and-a-half years have been a long and bumpy road. In 2010, I began the exciting—but arduous—task of moving from a print-only designer to a print & web designer with front-end development experience. During the past eight weeks here at Fresh Tilled Soil, I have leaned more, made more breakthroughs, and gained a deeper understanding than I have in the past two years combined. All of this accelerated progress was made possible through mentors and real-world experience.

My conversion from print to web

My first brush with web design and coding happened in introductory design classes in HTML and CSS back in 2003, but for a long time my coding and web design learning was reduced to the infrequent blog post and occasional discussion with friends about design trends and web standards. In order to learn how to code my own WordPress website, I had to start reading up on the fundamentals of HTML, CSS, and some PHP—all while working a day job in print design.

It was a stressful time of setting my own deadlines, creating my own milestones, and searching the internet for people who I could trust for best-practices and experienced knowledge. The latter was especially time-consuming and sometimes frustrating, as some websites would contradict others and were often unclear as to why something worked in a given situation.

Going it alone

For the fundamentals of WordPress, I did what I usually do: I researched and bought two books, WordPress Theme Design: A Complete Guide to Creating Professional WordPress Themes by Tessa Blakeley Silver and Digging into WordPress by Chris Coyier and Jeff Starr.

Reading and trying to follow along was great for a while. I was able to quickly understand the basics of WordPress PHP and how it hooks into the HTML and CSS. However, after making an attempt at coding a custom theme for a client, I got stuck and realized how much I still had yet to learn. I was frustrated with my own lack of knowledge in more advanced CSS and HTML, and the project took forever—months and months. I also realized that although I had a basic understanding of how to code a WordPress theme, that did not mean that I knew how to price that job, organize my time, and streamline my workflow. Understanding all of these would have helped me be more successful in that first client job, but there was no way I was going to get that off a blog or out of a book—not the same book anyway.

My turning point

Fast forward to this apprenticeship, and I was able to learn how to write JavaScript from scratch in just under 20 days. I read Tim Wright’s book cover to cover and was also able to get one-on-one feedback and answers to my questions. Additionally, we talked through theory, he gave more detailed feedback on my code, and I was able to have side-conversations about how JavaScript as a programming language fits into computer programming as a whole. All of my breakthroughs came from having someone to help me through my roadblocks. Learning JavaScript would have easily taken me two months on my own—if I could even get that far.

Finding the why

Looking backward, the internet is fantastic with telling you how something will work. As I got more and more information, I realized I was missing one major piece of knowledge—the why.

Why should I put JavaScript at the bottom of my document and which scripts? Why should I be using semantic class names and IDs? Why should I be using CSS fallbacks and when? Why should I use relative units like ems instead of pixels and when? These questions—if left unanswered—leave holes in your understanding that can build up over time. Like mathematics, if you don’t learn the fundamentals you’ll be lost when things get complex.

In my experience, finding out the why is the key to gaining a deeper understanding of anything new. Having a mentor who can speak from experience and guide you in the right direction—without simply telling you the answer—is the best and quickest way to learn. Alternatively, you can fumble through and make your own mistakes, but faster growth can be achieved when you learn from mistakes others have already learned.

Whatever you attempt to learn next, get out of the office, find a mentor, and start learning from someone else’s mistakes.

About Fresh Tilled Soil

Fresh Tilled Soil is a Boston-based user interface and experience design firm focused on human centered digital design