The devastating allure of tutorials (and what I’m going to do instead)

Me, learning x:

  • Complete a tutorial on x
  • Try to use x on a real project, flail helplessly
  • Complete a longer/more expensive/better reviewed tutorial on x
  • Try to use x on a real project, flail helplessly
  • Complete yet another tutorial on x….
  • Etc.

I do this all the time, most recently with Adobe Illustrator, but also with JavaScript frameworks, and web development in general. Ever since I started learning in early 2019, I’ve been on an informal quest for just the right instructor, course, video, whatever, that will take me from “not knowing” to “knowing”. I haven’t questioned this process, until now. After all, there is no shortage of on-line courses, so that must be the best way, right?

Now I suspect that the endless carousel of tutorials may be the rule, not the exception, on this path. Following one tutorial (even following it well, completing all the assignments, and trying really hard) leads to more. I never quite get to my intended destination, no matter how talented the instructor or how well-planned the materials.

Once I thought about it, I remembered that it wasn’t always like this. I wasn’t always like this. Let’s visit the before-time.

How I used to learn things

Before YouTube became popular and the internet became ubiquitous, if I wanted to learn a piece of software, I had roughly 2 options:

  1. Read the manual.
  2. Mess around until I got it to work.

Google may have had the answers, but there wasn’t yet a culture of using internet searches to solve all problems. If I was lucky I might be able to ask someone in person, but more often than not, there was option 1, there was option 2, or there was a combination of both.

This was certainly the situation in 2006, when I started a university music course. I had had some exposure to music notation software, but zero exposure to Avid Sibelius, the industry-standard notation software on the university’s computers. When suddenly I had to turn in my first written piece of music, I had no choice but to “figure it out”. How did that go? My flailing was so helpless that I gave up and wrote the whole score out by hand, as if it was the 1800’s or something. Geez.

Musical notes printed on paper.
Photo by William Parsons on Unsplash

That assignment only required one line of music and some text. But I would eventually have large ensemble pieces to complete, so I had to learn how to use Sibelius, somehow.

And do you know what? I did. I may have asked for help about one or two things, but computers weren’t generally a strong point for my right-brained musician colleagues. I clicked on anything and everything until I got where I wanted, occasionally glancing at the documentation, trying desperately to remember what I’d done for the next time. It was slow. It was painful. But by my final year I could bang out a handful of jazz charts in an evening (it was that rare but possible situation, an actual “jazz emergency”). I didn’t just learn Sibelius; I knew it inside and out. I was fast. More importantly, I was confident.

Why tutorials always seem like such a good idea…

The process of trying one thing after another, getting stuck, then (some time later) getting unstuck is a slow torture. It is a discomfort that I instinctively avoid.

So, naturally I get seduced by the idea that I could learn a skill quickly, without going through all that. I could watch an expert complete a task quickly and with no mistakes, do what they did, and then know how to do it with no mistakes, forever. I don’t have to be so frustrated or take so much time.

…and where they fall short

But that frustration serves a purpose: it’s what gives me confidence. Learning a thing from someone else can be useful, but it doesn’t instill confidence. Actually doing that something does. So even after finishing a course, if I haven’t also done extensive messing around on my own, with all the accompanying difficulty, then I still don’t know what I’m doing. I just think I do.

Tutorial instructors promote their courses by claiming that they’ll teach what I need to know in order to do whatever the course is about. The subtext is that afterwards, I’ll be able to do this thing on my own. If not, what was the point in the first place? I put my faith in that, and finish with a confidence that is as reliable as the skin on a soap bubble.

As soon as I get out on my own, that bubble bursts. I’m not as sure and steady as the instructor was, but instead back to some helpless flailing. Immediately, I question myself. They said I’d know this, but I don’t feel like I know it. I have no confidence. Therefore, I must need another course. Maybe the next one will “work”.

Another way forward

There is a place for tutorials, certainly. They can provide a useful overview of the possibilities. They can point me in the right direction. But in the end, they cannot give me the confidence I’m looking for. There is no substitute for the pain of getting stuck, no shortcut around the discomfort of being “terrible”.

Having come to this conclusion, I’m cutting myself off from tutorials for a while (one month, at least). I’ve gone through a 3-hour tutorial on Adobe Illustrator already – no more. Instead, I’m going to:

  • Make projects, whatever I can think of.
  • Vastly overreach and spend 10x longer than I think I should.
  • Create finished products that look nothing like what I intended.
  • Get stuck and consult the help files.
  • Go a little crazy.
  • Get used to the pain, until one day it just isn’t there anymore.

Okay, time to go be “terrible”.

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