Knowledge Takes Time (And Trial and Error)

Knowledge Time

A while back I wrote a post about how time is the most valuable component to success in publishing, yet it’s the thing no one gives you. It takes time to build a following, produce great books, and learn the ins and outs of the business, but everyone from your agent to your fans to your publisher is pushing you to go faster.

That post was the micro version of time, looking at the effect on the small niche of publishing. This post is about the macro version of time and how knowledge in general takes time to acquire. Yet (still) no one gives you that time. You’re just expected to know everything immediately and if you don’t, you are dismissed as an idiot or ineffective. Same problem, same expectations from the world, but on a very different scale.

Any skill/knowledge set requires time to learn and master. This is true for everything from learning how to fix a leaky faucet to writing and marketing books. Nothing is learned overnight. (Everyone tries the osmosis thing at some point in school and it never works, does it? Sleeping on your textbook is no way to acquire knowledge, but a great way to get a neck cramp.)

There’s a reason why there are introductory and advanced courses on nearly everything. An introductory course is a great beginning, but to truly master a thing, you have to progress up the ladder. And even then, you have to keep learning because you never know everything. Look at the most brilliant PhD’s. Most of them are still taking courses and learning independently because they know that knowledge is never “mastered.” Sure, you can grasp the basics of a thing in just a few minutes, but to really learn it you have to study and apply it.

Of course, formal education isn’t the only way to acquire knowledge. Sometimes, even though you think you know it all, you still have to try something, fail at it, and then learn some more. That’s just life. You’re never done learning because there’s always something new for you to master. Blog posts, books, courses, etc. are great, but they’re no substitute for practical applications. Or failures. And trying, failing, and trying again all takes time, too. There’s simply no other miracle way of solving this equation. Learning = time.

Most of us learn as we go along. We need to know something, so we look it up, engage with it, and learn what we need to learn. That might take an hour, or it might take years. In most cases it’s going to take a while to learn anything other than the simplest skills. And that’s as it should be. I’ll repeat: Almost nothing is learned overnight.

But despite this fact, the world seems to expect you to enter any situation already fully knowledgeable about the thing. Take writing. It took you years to learn how to write a publishable book. Yet your publisher expects you to know how to market it the minute you sign the contract. And the tax man expects you to know how to run a business immediately. There’s no forgiveness for goofing up the first year or two of taxes. Sure, it’s possible to pay people to help with these things, but many authors can’t afford to do so. And even if you can, it’s still knowledge you need. Outsourcing it isn’t a forever solution if you want control of your life and business. Outsiders can tech you, but it’s going to take time.

You don’t learn any job overnight. Well, at least most of them. It takes years to learn to code to any decent standard. Want to be a teacher, lawyer, or doctor? Prepare for years of education. Even something simple as working retail takes a while to master. Most people aren’t good with customer service on day one, or know how to run the register or process a return. Yes, you will be taught these things, but there will be no forgiveness if you lock up the register on Black Friday because you’re still learning. (I know this because I worked a seasonal retail job and did exactly this the first year. Believe me. There was no forgiveness or compassion that day.)

We expect people to just magically know everything. And when they don’t, we get angry or assume they’re ineffective at their job. Okay, in some jobs screwing up is really bad, like when you’re a doctor. But there’s also a reason why they don’t turn a doctor loose on patients until many years of supervised practice have gone by. Unlike in other jobs where they turn people who are still learning loose on the world and just expect them to handle it.

Here’s a thought: Instead of getting angry or dismissing people as idiots, why not try some compassion? Why not relax and let them learn at their own pace? If it looks like a person is sincerely trying (as opposed to effing-off), be patient and allow them to work through the thing. Getting worked up about it only makes it worse, anyway. Pressuring a cashier to figure out the machine just triggers brain lock. Pressuring the writer to successfully market a book five minutes after signing a contract just leads to anger and frustration. Relax, offer to help if you can, and accept that knowledge is not an instantaneous thing. For any of us. You need just as much learning time as the next person if you’re tackling something unfamiliar.

I’m telling you this for two reasons. First, to encourage the aforementioned compassion for your fellow human beings. We all start somewhere, so cut everybody a break. Second, to encourage you to show some compassion for yourself. You’ll master whatever you’re trying to learn at some point. It’s okay if it’s not today. The world may not want to wait for you, but it’ll just have to because once you learn the thing, you’re going to be brilliant at it. It’s just going to take time and effort.

(Image by Felix Mittermeier)

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