The Importance of Learning What You Already Know

A couple of months ago I went to a PowerShell user group meeting on a subject that I already knew really well.  Since it involved a 3-hour drive (one-way) I almost decided not to go.  I had a great time, though, and I thought I’d share some observations I made about the experience.

Starting with the conclusion:  don’t skip out on something (a book, a blog post, a meeting, a video, etc.) just because you’re familiar with the subject.

Now for the reasons:

You might not know it as well as you thought!

First, you might not understand the material as well as you thought.  You probably haven’t used every feature of everything that the speaker is talking about.  Reading an overview in a book (how I’ve learned a lot of stuff) is not nearly as useful as seeing someone demonstrate in front of you. The user group meeting I referred to earlier was about functions, which I’ve used extensively, written about, and taught dozens of times.  I had read about the HelpMessage parameter attribute.  I don’t use it, though, and somehow I had gotten the wrong impression about how it worked.  Interestingly enough, someone else at the meeting thought it worked the same way I did.  We were both wrong.

You might have different opinions than the presenter!

A presentation will usually include some material that is opinion-based.  The simple matter of selecting topics to include conveys an opinion of what is important and what isn’t, for instance.  Trying to determine the opinion of the presenter can provide an opportunity for rich discussion.  If your opinion is different, politely asking why they think that way instead of the way you think can lead to some really good learning opportunities.  Again, in the case of this meeting, it was the Position parameter attribute.  I see it used all the time, and I generally think it’s overused.  The presenter had a different opinion and the ensuing discussion changed my mind.  I’m planning on writing the topic up as a post, so I won’t expand on it more here.   The point is that there’s more to the talk than the bullet points, and the “space between” can often be as educational as the explicit material.

Fine-tuning your understanding

Even if you do understand the “big picture” of the subject, there’s bound to be an angle you hadn’t thought of.  Listening to material that you generally understand gives you the freedom to pay attention to the details that you might miss if you’re trying to get a general understanding.   So, since I wasn’t worried about not grokking the material, I could pay attention to how the speaker was using functions, his naming conventions, etc.  Nuances that I might have missed as a first-time learner were readily available to me.

Encouraging sharing

The previous points were selfish, that is, they were direct benefits for you.  This point is more about being beneficial to the speaker and the community in general.  It’s not nearly as much fun or rewarding to speak to a really small crowd, especially if you’ve spent a lot of time developing and organizing the material.  By just showing up, you’ve encouraged someone who might be making the decision if it’s worthwhile to share or not.