Stop Consuming: Learn by Doing!

Ash Norton

February 13, 2017

Ash Norton
We’ve teamed up with Ash Norton, an Engineering Subject Matter Expert, to bring you a post about her experience with learning by doing.

“If someone was really the person that solved it, they will be able to answer at multiple levels…because anyone who struggles hard with a problem never forgets it.” - Elon Musk

How many articles have you read or podcasts have you heard this week? How many lectures, speakers, or webinars have you listened to in the past year?

If you are a mechanical engineer who is a car fanatic, you might catch yourself reading five articles a d day and two podcasts a week about the latest technology, maintenance techniques, etc. That amounts to 10 hours per week. But what do you do when your vehicle breaks down? You take it to the “experts” - the mechanics at your trusted repair shop.

Or maybe I love food, er I mean, YOU love food. You spend two hours a night watching The Food Network, and countless hours a week drooling over recipes on Pinterest. But what do you do when you want a good meal? You go to the “experts” - chefs at your favorite restaurants.

But what if there is a better, more effective, way to learn? Now hear me out…

What if, mechanical engineer/car fanatic, you spent two hours a week reading articles and listening to podcasts? And what if you spent the other eight hours working on cars? Over the course of one year, that would be over 400 hours doing something you love, instead of reading about something you love.

And what if, foodie, you spent two hours a night cooking those hundreds of recipes you’ve pinned on Pinterest instead of watching from your couch? You would have racked up over 700 hours a year practicing cooking. What would you have learned?

The Power of Doing

As I started my sophomore year of chemical engineering, I thought I had learned so much, but I hadn’t learned it in a sustainable way. Three months later, having finished my first term as a co-op student, I learned engineering lessons that I would never forget.

My first session as a co-op was enlightening. My mentor was a brilliant, experienced mechanical engineer. I spent hours following him around, basically as an apprentice. I learned how equipment failed, the process data that would predict it, and how to use creativity when the parts you need do not exist (or are beyond the budget). I can’t tell you specifically what I learned in my engineering classes prior to co-oping, but long after the co-op, I can still see the equipment.

Learning by doing will engrain the skills and knowledge in a way that reading about it or listening to someone talk about it will not.

Make Doing Work for You!

I know. I know. This is all good and well for your hobbies. But what about for your career? You cannot always just start doing. If you want to learn more about nuclear energy, you can’t walk into the control room of a nuclear power station and start pressing buttons. (PS - In reality, you probably wouldn’t make it past the security gate without getting detained or shot!)

Here are a couple of ways to learn by doing today:

Get a Mentor

As I mentioned, I worked very closely with an experienced engineer. Hands-on experience is wildly valuable. Great mentors and managers, ones who really care about your development, will allow you to learn on your own with just enough freedom to make some mistakes (just not career-ending ones)!


My first experience with running a website came from coaching a high school girls soccer team. My first experience with marketing came from organizing and promoting a poker night for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. My first experience with branding came from helping develop a logo for a technical conference that the company I worked for was hosting.

Despite the two years of business courses that I took in earning my MBA degree, the experiences that I rely on as a small business owner are these, all of which I learned by doing.

Yes, the courses and lectures were a great place to start learning about business, but without these first-hand experiences, the lessons would not be as ingrained.

Temporary Assignments

Some of the most valuable experiences I’ve had were temporary assignments.

  • Supporting outage inspections allowed me to learn first-hand how equipment worked (and failed).
  • Developing and facilitating safety training taught me how to design and teach others in a way that really sticks.
  • Planning and coordinating a day-long leadership conference for high school girls taught me about leading teams of people, public relations, and fundraising.
  • Chairing employee resource groups at my company allowed me to develop my leadership skills.

Develop your skills through short term assignments that are not your typical 9 to 5 tasks. This will allow you to grow and learn, while providing value to your company!

Apply What You’ve Read/Heard

How many times have you read an article or heard a talk and were super energized and inspired by its message, only to get back to your desk and NEVER apply it?! Stop it. Stop it right now!

When you learn something by reading or hearing about it, take the time to practice and apply it. Block off time on your calendar to DO what you learned. This is where the learning magic happens!

There is nothing wrong with reading and listening to develop and grow. In fact, this is often the best way to start learning. But don’t stop there! It will be by doing that you truly learn the lessons that will stick with you. You can’t read experience. You have to earn it.

Ash Norton
To learn more about how to take initiative in your career today - check out the step-by-step process that helped Ash become an Engineering Subject Matter Expert at the young age of 25.

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