Our networks teacher told us three years ago, “If you want to learn how to use Linux, spend two months playing with it.” And I think what he wanted to say was, a university course on Linux can’t be sufficient enough to teach us how to use it. Students need to immerse themselves in the new world of Linux, and learn through trial and error. Full immersion will force us to figure things out.

Of course we can’t say that this approach can be applied to every skill in the world. For example, if I want my 6-year-old cousin to learn how to play the violin, I’m not going to buy her a violin and let her figure things out. That would be totally wrong. She would stare at the lesson book for five seconds, and six minutes later she would bring the violin to me in one hand, and a snapped bow in the other.

Some skills require man-to-man tutoring, because the damage caused by wrong habits is too harmful. There simply is no room for individual trial and error. So if you learn to play the violin without proper instruction, it is likely that you will greatly lower your potential. But luckily, there are many skills that allow us to figure things out through trial and error.

As I mentioned before, learning how to use a different operating system, such as Linux, is best learned through trial and error. I would say that most things in the IT world are best learned individually through trial and error. Graphics design requires trial and error to master. Programming languages are all about trial and error. Building websites involves trial and error. Trial and error also applies to many professional skills outside the IT world. Mastery in martial arts involves a long path of trial and error. Writing is about scrapping countless sheets of paper. And athletes have to devote thousands of hours to practice, which is like a synonym for trial and error.

The best way to learn how to swim is to jump into the water

The path to learning a skill is often long. It is not always an easy task to undertake. You might get frustrated along the way and give up. (My 5 Effective Self-Motivation Techniques will help you to overcome this problem.) You have to commit yourself to the task. So make a commitment when you start learning a new skill.

The trial and error method is about diving into your subject and learning how to work your way through the system. Imagine being a person who doesn’t know how to swim, and you have to jump into the middle of a lake from a helicopter. Your goal is to reach the shore. To succeed, you need to learn how to swim while you’re in the water. Most people can’t do this. And of course, the point is not about being able to do this either. It was just an extreme example. But keep it in mind.

Committing yourself to trial and error

We’ve made a commitment to learn something, so we can’t chicken out. The helicopter isn’t going to come down and scoop us up into safety. We’ll have to look for ways to get closer to shore. If we are learning how to use Linux, we can try launching a terminal application and input a few commands—and see if something happens. If not, we can open Firefox (it’s the year 2009 so I’m assuming that the Linux distribution is capable of providing us with Internet functionality) and search for some advice for beginners. After looking up an array of basic commands, we decide to try inputting ‘ls’ in the terminal application, because that’s what was told in the tutorial. Cool! It gives us the contents of the current directory. We’ve learned our first lesson. But next we really want to move somewhere else in the system. So another website tells us to type ‘cd /’ and hit return. We execute the command, and also decide to peek what’s inside this strange place. Wow! Now we’re seeing a lot of new stuff. Lesson #2 learned. Et cetera, et cetera.

This way we’re constantly giving ourselves new tasks and objectives, so we’re learning new things little by little. And we’re also reviewing previous things at the same time. We might try something, and get an error, but if we’re committed enough, we’ll eventually figure out a way to get the desired result. And after numerous tasks, when we’re finally nearing the shore, we will realize how far we’ve come. We will then realize that we’ve learned a new skill.