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2020 was not a good year for learning

December 9th, 2020

There, I said it.

What did I learn about building websites in 2020? A lot. But what I learned is not nearly as important as how I learned it. So instead, I want to share a couple of strategies I used to unblock learning in less-than-ideal times.

I spent almost a decade of teaching design and, let me tell you, the conditions for curiosity were all wrong this year. You are not alone if you’ve found yourself battling brain fog, deep existential crisis, and long spans of nothingness instead of basking in a creative renaissance. I spent most of this year in a tiny apartment under a terrifying lockdown in epicenter-of-the-pandemic New York with my husband, two cats, and a very energetic toddler. I’ll save the details for a therapist, but let’s just say this year did not go as planned.

But then again, whose year did? The entire world plunged into crisis. I only feel deep gratitude for having weathered this storm and for having cultivated the skills I needed for my little family to thrive despite the chaos.

I spent years speaking at conferences about mental models and growing creativity. This year, I’ve had to focus on the other side of that coin: helping people recover their creativity when it feels out of reach. The first thing I usually recommend to anyone feeling creatively blocked is that they start actively wasting their time.

Waste your time

I had ambitious plans for 2020, having plotted out a rigorous study plan for myself. That plan is now in the garbage next to my travel plans and willingness to wear anything but yoga pants.

What I am capable of after a good night’s sleep, coffee in hand is one thing. What I can manage after a sleepless night followed by a full day of Zoom meetings while simultaneously trying to wrangle a toddler is another thing entirely.

The loss of childcare meant that the only time to indulge in learning was after a long day of work after my daughter was tucked into bed, and I was completely exhausted. The last thing I wanted was a disciplined study in pursuit of a goal, so I changed my approach: focus on breadth, widen the scope of topics, let my mind wander, and feed my curiosity. As a bonus, this shift often kept me from losing the evening to bingeing Netflix or doom-scrolling the news late into the night.

2020 was not a good year for learning

When you’re low on motivation or approaching burnout, create the opportunity to “waste time” and play. Follow what interests you, not just the things you “should” be interested in. Do not let your velocity or productivity enter the equation – respect that a life of learning is much more complex than that. Practice curiosity and protect your ability to play, it is critical to learning and creating. If you’re curious about why that is, look up inquiry-based or constructivist learning. What you’ll learn will have nothing to do with building websites, and that’s the point.

Nostalgia

Many talented people felt their ability to create disappear this year, for a variety of reasons. I want to be clear — that’s a normal human reaction to all of this. There is no “one weird trick” for unblocking productivity when the world is on fire. But, if building websites bring you the joy and/or money you need, and you want some advice from someone trained in jump-starting learning, I’ll say this: revisit your foundations. Not the foundations, but your foundations.

When things are this uncertain for this long, we reach for coping mechanisms. Why not use one to unblock learning? In a recent New York Times article, psychologists said that ‘conjuring nostalgia during stressful times is a healthy coping mechanism,” and I totally agree. Between re-watching 90’s movies and cooking comfort foods, I dove back into what brought me to tech: design, CSS, color functions, typography, design patterns. I played around in Illustrator, dusted off old repos, looked at happy projects, and remembered old trends. I avoided burning energy on the hot new thing. Instead, I revisited the foundations of my understanding through the lens of experience.

I’m not suggesting you stay in your comfort zone, but I am saying it’s okay to start there. The important thing is starting.

Routines and Structures

There is disruption on every level: global, national, and personal. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t experienced a disruption to their lives. When our routines are disrupted and our basic needs (including health and psychological) are threatened, we are unable to learn well. One of the most effective things a teacher can do in the classroom is to make sure their students eat breakfast, so focus on your needs. Getting a good night’s sleep contributes to learning. Caring for your mental health contributes to learning. Punishing yourself for struggling does not.

This year, as all of my support structures disappeared, there was not enough Natalya to do everything and be there for everyone. Accepting that was difficult. I spent a lot of energy shifting my focus from “the year I wished for” to the one I was experiencing. I used every trick in the teacher’s handbook on myself to keep my love of learning intact, feel some progress, and keep up. No matter how much I did, I still felt like I didn’t do enough. It was just the kind of year when everything felt like it took more energy (because it did). Setting up new routines and structures is work. The factor that into your equation when evaluating your progress.

This is where I would usually rant about how teaching and childcare are real skills and difficult jobs, dedicating several paragraphs to how important and valuable the work of teachers and caregivers is. But anyone who has been homeschooling or caring for someone this year is already well aware.

Creating the right conditions for effective learning is a lot of work, so give yourself credit if you’ve been taking it on.

This has been a deeply unsustainable year for so many. Showing up and making it through each day and making any progress is enough. Not giving up and trying again, day after day is a success.

What I learned…

Ah, the reason you’re reading this. I would love to talk about the cool design and tech stuff I learned this year, but I won’t. What I learned as an individual in 2020 is not nearly as important as what I hope we learned as an industry.

I hope we learned that the most important thing to know about building websites is that there are real people building them, and we need to make sure they can thrive.

Lunch perks and swag are cool, but what about childcare, accessibility, and support structures? What about flexible hours and remote-first practices? We should notice that the companies which supported people before the pandemic are doing better than the ones struggling to pivot to do the work they should have been doing all along.

I wish it didn’t take a global pandemic, but we need change. Let’s use this knowledge to build a better society with stronger principles and more thoughtful structures—not just better websites.

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