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“Wouldn’t it be cool if I could speak Dutch?”

I don’t even remember what prompted me to ask myself this question, but six months later, I found myself speaking technical Dutch full-time in my work as a software consultant in the Netherlands. Here’s how that happened.

At the start of the year, I was living in Melbourne, Australia, when I got the idea that I wanted to learn Dutch. At the time, I didn’t speak a word of it, but I loved the way it sounded and fantasized about living in the Netherlands someday. So I started to learn.

After installing Duolingo and learning how to say useful phrases like “I am a duck” in Dutch, I realized I needed something different. I found and joined a (now defunct) community called Add 1 Challenge by Brian Kwong. The Add 1 Challenge is a language learning challenge with three basic premises:

  1. The best way to become a polyglot (someone who speaks multiple languages) is to add one language at a time.
  2. Committing to learning something (anything) in a language every day for 90 days yields astonishing results.
  3. Having a public community and a smaller, private group to hold you accountable for learning makes all the difference.

So, in February 2016, I pledged to spend an hour every day learning Dutch in some way for 90 days straight. You can still watch my video on Day 0 here. Sometimes that involved learning grammar from books, but most of it was spent taking conversation lessons, watching Peppa Pig, reading the news, reading my favourite kids’ (and, later, Young Adult) books, and listening to songs in Dutch. Crucially, I posted several videos of me speaking Dutch to the Add 1 Challenge Facebook community at several points along the way, and also met up weekly with my accountability buddy to discuss our language learning progress. Here’s the video on day 90. 1 Along the way, I met a few wonderful friends who spoke Dutch (something I couldn’t find in Melbourne) and gave me great feedback about what I should work on next.

Almost immediately after the challenge, my husband and I went on a five-week trip to the Netherlands, where we explored the country thoroughly, celebrated Koningsdag, got lost in the canals of Utrecht, sampled cheese in Gouda, ate bitterballen in Rotterdam, saw the Girl with the Pearl Earring in Den Haag, walked in the Hortus Botanicus in Leiden, and saw tulips of every colour at the Keukenhof— while doing as much of it in Dutch as I possibly could. In a twist of fate, I also met up with an old friend who arranged a job interview for me with his employer. I did the interview entirely in Dutch.

Two weeks after I returned to Melbourne, I had a job offer. Two months after that, my husband and I had quit our Australian jobs, rented out our house, sold or given away our things, and were moving to the Netherlands.

Today, I’m a Dutch citizen. I own an apartment in the beautiful border city of Maastricht, in the Netherlands, where I’ve lived for seven years. I speak Dutch every day. I’ve worked, given presentations at conferences, done my taxes, read real estate contracts, written poems, and made friends— entirely in Dutch.

All that is possible because I did it in public.

Doing WHAT in public?

We often treat learning something the way we treat sex.

We hesitate to acknowledge we’re doing it, for fear of judgment or ridicule. If we must do it, we do it behind closed doors, and even as we enjoy it, we do so with the appropriate amount of guilt. We delight in it in secret until one day, perhaps nine months from now, we have something to show for it: a product of our efforts. This, finally, is a thing we can be publicly proud of, even as we downplay the process of getting there.

The truth is that everyone else is doing it in secret too.

We do it in secret because it’s difficult to admit we have a lot to learn, especially when we need to learn things we feel we ought to know already. No matter how much experience we have, or how often we’ve made something, it’s still difficult to silence the nagging voice in our heads that wonders how we got as far as we did without knowing much of anything. We don’t want to be found out, so we transgress in the dark and play catch-up and make our mistakes where nobody else will see them. At the end of it, if we chance upon the creation of something halfway decent, then we let other people see it. This, in our minds, is what it looks like to be an expert: having a showcase of beautiful things effortlessly made from nothing. Because we’re just that good.

But there’s another way to make things without the pretense, one that is kinder to ourselves than we can be. It’s a way that enables us to learn and think and question and play, just for the joy of it. It’s a philosophy of learning that is forgiving while moving fast enough to be fun:

Doing it in public.

Do it like the Greeks

None of this is new. In fact, quite the opposite.

In the 5th century BCE in Athens, the ancient Greeks established what would be the first documented instance of democracy under a nobleman named Cleisthenes. Integral to the reforms Cleisthenes instituted was the foundation of an Assembly, called an Ekklesia (ἐκκλησία). The Ekklesia was a gathering of Athenians for the purpose of making collective decisions about policies and laws, but it turned into more than that. It became a way to inform, educate, persuade, debate, include, and learn. Athenians didn’t just come to the Ekklesia to listen— they came to express their opinions, understand others’ perspectives, and come to a joint conclusion that everyone was comfortable with. The Ekklesia established oratory and public speaking as one of the very foundations of democracy.

Over time, the use of oratory spilled out of the political domain and trickled through to other areas of society, like philosophy. Later, Athenians would flock to the Lyceum, a cross between a school and a gymnasium that would be used for both mental and physical exercises. The best thinkers of Athens discovered that oratory was useful for more than just making decisions. It was a good tool for reasoning about the nature of life, the universe, and everything. With that understanding came the refinement of two sub-disciplines of oratory: rhetoric and dialectic. 2

Rhetoric is the art of persuasion, but it’s not just about delivering an impassioned speech. Aristotle founded his own school in Athens, called the Peripatetic school, a “walking school” where instead of teaching, he would walk around the Lyceum with his students, discussing philosophy. Aristotle used rhetoric as a way to develop ideas, not just express them. He would go and speak with his students as a way to build arguments, tailoring his cadence and delivery to their emotional and intellectual reactions. Aristotle spoke in public to get constant feedback about how his ideas were being received.

Dialectic, on the other hand, is the art of synthesizing disparate and sometimes contradictory ideas. Socrates had a particular style of questioning, called the Socratic method, that involved asking increasingly challenging questions to reveal the faults of a premise. Dialectic is about systematically and dispassionately attacking an idea with the goal of strengthening it— or disproving it entirely. Plato used structured dialogues to make his points, deliberately working in counterarguments to preempt potential criticisms and to deepen his own, as well as others’, understanding of the topic. Dialectic is a style of critical reasoning that hinges on dissent, and is therefore best done among a crowd of people who can authentically disagree.

The ancient Greeks understood something that we’ve lost: that speaking in front of an audience can be part of the process of learning, rather than the end result. They practiced the art of oratory not just for its performative value. They practiced it because it gave them immediate feedback about how their arguments were received and critical information about how to improve next time.

The ancient Greeks understood the value of learning in public: something that still holds true today.

What is learning in public?

Learning in public is a fundamental subversion of how most of us learn to learn. Instead of waiting until the end to show off the resulting work, learning in public shows the process of creating it. Instead of polish and perfection, the public learner aims for authenticity and progress. And instead of downplaying the effort it took to make something, they openly acknowledge the struggle and doubt that are constant companions of making anything worth making.

Learning in public is about showing your work 3 as part of the creation process, using social networks and digital tools to shorten the gap between ideation and production. Public learners post questions on social media when someone says something they don’t understand, but want to learn. Their status updates are a progress report of their latest project. They speak up during community spaces to pitch ideas. They turn on the camera and press record without scripting what they’re going to say. They publish blog posts before they feel ready. They apply to speak at conferences before they feel they’re experts. Public learners make mistakes loudly, waiting for someone to correct them. And they’re genuinely happy when someone does.

Learning in public is like working with the garage door up 4 and leaving it open as an invitation: an invitation for others not just to watch them work, but to participate in the process as co-creators of a community of knowledge.

Why should you learn in public?

By now, you’re probably thinking that learning in public sounds great… in theory. But if you’re like most people (including me), you’ve probably also felt that constricting fear in your chest at the thought of showing the world how little you really know. How messy your initial draft is. How much you actually have to edit your work to make it presentable.

Everyone feels that way. Here are some reasons why you should do it anyway.

You get immediate feedback

There’s an internet meme known as Cunningham’s Law that states:

The best way to get the right answer on the Internet is not to ask a question, it’s to post the wrong answer.

Provocative idea. Here’s the thing: the law itself is perhaps purposely misattributed to Ward Cunningham, a programmer who is one of the co-authors of the Agile Manifesto 5. It was actually coined by Steven McGeady, who submitted it to the New York Times 6 referencing Cunningham, whom he’d met. Since then, the law has also prompted some to disprove it 7… which, in my opinion, proves the law.

Whether the law itself is right or wrong, there’s some truth to it, and the truth is that it’s easier to get feedback when you start from something to disprove.

Now, I’m not suggesting you spam the internet creating fake news and trolling strangers for fun. I’m suggesting that when you have a question, you do your research, present your opinion, cite your sources, and admit you’re not sure if your conclusions are correct. Then post it online.

I’d wager that you’re more likely to get an answer to that than to posting an open-ended question. It takes less effort to correct a mistake than it does to answer a question from scratch. Doing your own research and showing your work also demonstrates that you respect others’ time.

Showing others what you’re working on, early and often, does expose you to negative feedback, but that’s a good thing. Compassionately given negative feedback is a powerful thing. It better facilitates behavioral change than positive feedback and forms the basis of evolution by natural selection. 8 Learning in public helps you get the helpful criticism you need before you go much further, letting you course correct earlier.

You get better at continuous learning

Just as the Athenians discovered, the very act of sharing what you’re thinking is a critical part of the thinking process itself. You don’t really know if you know something unless you can express it to someone else— unless you can take someone outside of yourself through the same journey and have them come to the same conclusion. And you don’t know how good what you’ve created is until it’s gone through the fire of criticism and feedback.

We often think of creation as a one-and-done linear process:

  1. You take in content as input.
  2. You come up with an idea.
  3. You produce something.

It may be nice and simple, but this approach exposes you to so many risks along the way:

  • What if you misunderstood your original input entirely?
  • What if you didn’t consume enough input, and missed other input that would have presented a different opinion?
  • What if someone else had already come up with your idea, but stated it better?
  • What if your idea is flawed in some fundamental way?
  • What if you didn’t present your idea convincingly?

And the most devastating risk to anyone making anything ever: what if you build something, and nobody ever sees or appreciates or uses it?

Instead, you could view creation as a cycle of continuous learning. Reframing it in this light frees you from the relentless focus on the end result so that you can actually go through the learning required to make beautiful things. But continuous learning behind closed doors requires a LOT of time and effort, and can cause you to second-guess when you should actually publish your work. What if you did it in public instead?

When you continuously learn in public, it looks like this:

  • Talking about input - things you’ve read or otherwise consumed that have stuck with you.
  • Getting into discussions with others about why they agree or disagree, and receiving recommendations of other input for future lines of inquiry.
  • Learning quickly what resonates with others and what doesn’t.
  • Rapidly revising your ideas, and resharing as you do so. Getting feedback on that anew.
  • Gradually refining your craft, improving your work incrementally with every bit of feedback you receive.

Learning in public shortens the feedback loop for continuous learning because you’re soliciting reactions at every stage of the process, before you get too invested. And, bonus: when you learn in public, you don’t have to decide when to “publish” your work— you’ve been doing that all along.

You combat impostor syndrome

More than thirty years ago, Radiohead recorded a song that might as well have been written about impostor syndrome:

I wish I was special But I’m a creep I’m a weirdo What the hell am I doing here? I don’t belong here

  • Creep, by Radiohead 9

Secretly, we all think we’re frauds. No matter how good we get, how many achievements we accomplish, how many years of experience we accumulate, at some point we all question what the hell we’re doing here. This is impostor syndrome.

It’s impossible to talk about making something without talking about impostor syndrome because the very act of creation involves putting a part of yourself out there for display, whether you show anyone or not. And the thought of showing many people your work, especially in a raw state, can be terrifying.

Learning in public combats impostor syndrome with authenticity.

When you learn in public, you are open about your level of knowledge, your experience, your intentions, and your mistakes. Because you’re showing where you’ve come from and the little steps you’re taking to get to where you’re going, your entire learning journey is documented. Learning in public is a way to declare to the world that what follows is going to be messy and raw. This declaration can be terrifically liberating.

Nobody expects you to be perfect when you’re learning. You never claimed to be an expert; why would they critique you like you are one? Nobody questions whether you belong, because you’ve made it clear you’re just beginning. Nobody asks you to prove what you know, because it’s all recorded for posterity, in public.

But most of all, learning in public helps you begin to lower your expectations of yourself, enough to actually enjoy the process.

You build and contribute to diverse communities

A huge advantage of learning in public is that when you’re “out” as a public learner, you inspire others to do the same. Others admire your courage and learn right along with you. Public learning lets you put yourself out there sooner, warts and all, so that your tribe can find you. You start to build a circle of supporters and friends who cheer you on when you make mistakes just as much as when you don’t. You participate in their public learning, discuss ideas back and forth, collaborate, contribute to a community of knowledge, and interact with kind and brilliantly creative humans.

Austin Kleon called this scenius: the fertile environment created through genuine interaction that cultivates creativity for everyone who participates. 3 This scenius nourishes you and your people, in the same way that the Lyceum did for the ancient Greeks. Being adamant about the value of learning in public affects the kinds of people who end up contributing to your life and work.

Communities of public learners are safe spaces for asking “dumb” questions because it resets the expectations of what gets to be posted online. This effect of lowering the barrier to entry also leaves room for people with different voices to join the conversation— often people whose voices are too meek or wavering to be heard over the noise of the mainstream public. Doing it in public helps you forge the path so that these people, who have interesting and unique perspectives of the world, feel encouraged to follow.

You are sustainably productive

The mass migration towards remote work has called into question some fundamental beliefs about human productivity, such as that it is primarily measured by how much time one spends at the office. Some companies, and some cultures, still work this way, with amount of time spent at a company and the amount of hours worked still matter more than anything else. Remote workers are still sometimes judged similarly, though. Sometimes they’re judged by the amount of Slack messages they write, or how responsive they are to email, or how outspoken they are during team meetings. All of this puts pressure on employees not to actually be productive but to look like they’re being productive— sometimes while burning themselves out in the process. These approaches are ultimately ineffective because they make the wrong thing visible.

Learning in public is about making the right things visible: the learning. Not the busywork, and not the overhead of work. But it’s also not so much about making the results visible. In fact, many public learners must keep the final results private, especially if they’re working on proprietary projects belonging to their clients. Instead, learning in public is about making learning exhaust visible.

Learning exhaust refers to what we think are the byproducts of learning, but are actually the proof of it: the series of questions beforehand, the wrong answers, the research down dead ends, the attempts and failures. When we reframe the stops along the way as little milestones, and we’re producing visible work (unpolished as it may be) along the way, the destination matters less.

When you publish your learning exhaust, you’re communicating what you’re working on while you’re still working on it. Working in this way means you don’t have to stop what you’re doing to produce separate progress reports, because your exhaust shows your progress. Learning in public can be a powerful tool in reducing overwork and preventing burnout.

Who is this book for?

This book is for knowledge workers: anyone who makes a living out of what they know.

It’s for the software engineers who are struggling to stay relevant in a field where everything is moving all the time.

It’s for writers who are trying to hone their craft while making a living from writing stuff on the internet.

It’s for content creators who read widely and must create something new from something old.

It’s for designers, artists, researchers, influencers, academics, businesspeople. It’s for gamers. It’s for those who are neurodivergent. It’s for noobs and experts alike.

Most of all, this book is for the perfectionists, the people too scared to put something out there until it’s just right. You want to tweak everything until you’re satisfied that it presents you in the best light, and the thought of posting raw work seems terribly daunting. I see you. I was you. This book is for you, too.

What’s in the book?

This book is divided into ten chapters:

Chapter 1 - The case for doing it in public lays out reasons why you should learn in public, and why open-source knowledge works.

Chapter 2 - Mindset shows you how to learn in public by making your work observable, continuous, fun, communal, and intentional. It also provides you with a Manifesto for Learning in Public that you can use to guide your work.

Chapter 3 - Microlearning proposes suggestions for how to start before you’re ready to learn in public, what you should post in public, and where you should post them.

Chapter 4 - Systematising your learning encourages you to add structure to your learning to make it less haphazard and more focused, including setting up a Personal Knowledge Management system.

Chapter 5 - Longform learning explains how to double down on your learning to create work that others value and how to broaden your reach.

Chapter 6 - Automating your learning gives you practical tutorials for how to automate learning in public, including creating a content calendar and building a learning pipeline.

Chapter 7 - Building a community talks about how to attract interesting people, how cultivate ritual dissent, and how to make a living out of learning in public.

Chapter 8 - Pitfalls in learning in public calls out some potential obstacles in your public learning journey and explains how you can avoid them.

Chapter 9 - When to learn in private talks about those situations when you shouldn’t learn in public, and how to defend the boundaries between public and private learning.

Chapter 10 - The cost of not doing it in public concludes with a reminder of what happens when you don’t learn in public.

My story

That’s the magic of doing it in public.



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Footnotes

  1. If you’re interested in seeing my progress during these 90 days, here’s the playlist: https://nicole.to/add1

  2. Lumen Learning. Module 16: The origins of public speaking. Retrieved from https://courses.lumenlearning.com/publicspeakingprinciples/chapter/ancient-greece/#footnote-413-3

  3. Kleon, A. (2014). Show your work!: 10 ways to share your creativity and get discovered. Workman Publishing Company. 2

  4. Matuschak, A. (2023). Work with the garage door up. Retrieved in January 2024 from https://notes.andymatuschak.org/Work_with_the_garage_door_up.

  5. Beck, K., Beedle, M., van Bennekum, A., Cockburn, A., Cunningham, W., Fowler, M., Grenning, J., Highsmith, J., Hunt, A., Jeffries, R., Kern, J., Marick, B., Martin, R.C., Mellor, S., Schwaber, K., Sutherland, J., Thomas, D. (2001). Manifesto for Agile software development. Retrieved from https://agilemanifesto.org/

  6. McGeady, S. (2010). Jurisimprudence. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://archive.nytimes.com/schott.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/05/31/jurisimprudence/?mtrref=en.wikipedia.org&assetType=REGIWALL

  7. Donnellan, K. (2019). I spent a week being wrong online. The Outline. Retrieved from https://theoutline.com/post/8084/i-spent-a-week-being-wrong-online

  8. Johnson, S. (2002). Emergence: The connected lives of ants, brains, cities and software. Penguin Books Ltd.

  9. Radiohead. (1992). Creep. Pablo Honey. EMI Records Ltd. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XFkzRNyygfk