Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

You can learn anything, and why you should

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism by Adam Westbrook on February 6, 2012

It was late on a Friday night and we were all drunk. 

My flatmate Rob picked up some juggling balls and offered me a challenge. “I bet I can teach you to juggle in 10 minutes” he said.

I remember trying to learn how to juggle when I was about 12 years old: a short lived experience full of frustration and ultimately failure. But now seemed as good a time as any to try again.

Over the next 10 minutes, Rob showed me the basic technique, starting with one ball, then two, and finally three. When the 10 minutes were up, I had managed to juggle all three balls about once or maybe twice before I dropped them – but I got the general technique.

Then something interesting happened. As everyone else went to bed, I stayed up and kept practicing. I tried juggling the three balls, and dropped them. Then I picked them up, and tried again. I practiced this over and over and over – until four in the morning. Silently throwing the balls up in the air, dropping them, picking them back up.

As I was doing it, I could almost feel my brain making new connections. Arm movements which seemed awkward an hour before were beginning to feel more natural. Soon I could juggle for two rotations, and then three, before dropping the balls.

II

This was the moment I realised something: I absolutely love learning new things. And I realised that learning something new is as simple as picking up the technique, and then working at it, silently, humbly, unflinchingly, until it sticks. They say your brain is like a muscle – you can train it new habits and build strength by regular repetition.

Of course, most people give up before then. Learning French seems pretty romantic until you factor in the hours of repeating irregular verbs over and over in your head. Every boy dreams of becoming a footballer, until it comes to the moment he has to practice hundreds of penalty kicks over and over in the rain. Everyone signs up to a new gym membership after Christmas with dreams of toning up, until they realise this involves dozens of painful press-ups, over and over again.

III

I’ve decided to make 2012 a year where I learn relentlessly with machine-line procedure: first I study the key points and then I practice, putting in the repetitive legwork until the muscle is strong. I won’t ever make it to Malcolm Gladwell good, but good enough. So far this year, I’ve been teaching myself some new web design skills: HTML 5, CSS3 and Jquery, building on my French, and hopefully a new musical instrument too.

This attitude to learning is essential in this modern world where technology seems to continually create new platforms, new workflows and new disciplines. In 2010 I taught myself how to animate motion graphics following this idea, something which soon became a source of income.

How to learn anything

So what’s the best way to learn? Luckily for us journalists, producers and publishers access to knowledge we need is pretty easy. But there are things you can do make it easier on yourself.

.01 Find free or cheap resources:  if you need video skills, hit the Vimeo Video School. Anything code related, tap up the Code Academy. You can even learn how to code your own iPhone app at Stanford University – for free! For everything in between I highly recommend Lynda.com*. They’ve got a huge range of courses on design, coding and other key software, and a month subscription costs $25 (£16).

.02 Learn on a need-to-know basis: you need to be smart about this sort of learning. There are no exams, no coursework: you decide the curriculum. So don’t waste your time learning something if it’s not going to be useful to you. What I mean is, if you want to learn how to make small styling adjustments to your WordPress blog, there’s no need to delve in to the history, syntax and ins and outs of  CSS. Just get what you need.

.03 Allocate regular practice time: this is where the legwork comes in – the regular practice, the bit where you create those grey matter connections. Depending on how intense you want to make it, somewhere between an hour a day and an hour a week will do it. Keeping motivation going is tough though, which is where the next tip is the killer…

.04 Give yourself a project: quite simply, the best way to learn something new is to turn your learning into an exciting creative project. In the education world it’s called experiential, or work-based learning, and experts are sure that people learn better when they’re excited by a particular goal. I haven’t been learning HTML step-by-step in factory fashion. Instead, I challenged myself to redesign my personal website from scratch and learnt on the job.

At the heart of all this, is the belief that there is nothing you can’t learn, regardless of age, income, background or education. Director David Mamet puts it well:

“…you get someone who knows how to take a picture, or you learn to how take a picture; you get someone who knows how to light or you learn how to light. There’s no magic to it. Some people will be able to do some tasks better than others – depending upon the degree of their technical mastery and their aptitude for the task. Just like playing the piano. Anybody can learn how to play the piano…There’s almost no-one who can’t learn to play the piano…The same thing is true of cinematography and sound mixing. Just technical skills.”

Finally, an important note about learning. Too often, we use education as a procrastination tool. Someone who wants to make a documentary (or says they want to) will go out and buy a big book about documentary making for beginners. What they should do instead is pick up a camera and start filming. Learning is best done by  doing.

Nobel Laureate Niels Bohr said “An expert is a person who has made every possible mistake within his or her field”. And nobody made any mistakes while reading a book.

*affiliate link

The multimedia journalist’s Christmas list

Posted in Entrepreneurial Journalism, Online Video by Adam Westbrook on December 12, 2011

What to buy a multimedia journalist for Christmas?

On Monday I published a book list of great titles for any journalist, producer or publishing entrepreneur. If you’re still looking for festive ideas, here are ten gadgets and gifts perfect for any next generation journalist. Enjoy!

Field Notes Set: ($9.95/£7) Moleskins are so last year. These days, the chic journalist jots their thoughts down in a Field Notes book, currently on sale in handy three-pack sets. If you don’t already, always carry a notebook with you, and always write everything down!

Redhead windscreen: ($35/£22) a quirky essential for any multimedia producer recording audio in the field. These hand made windshields are designed specifically for the Zoom and Tascam audio recorders and if the video on the website’s anything to go by, they do an amazing job of ensuring crisp audio in windy conditions. Added bonus: your audio recorder will look like a robot troll.

Adobe After Effects: ($1,320/£850) The ability to design and animate motion graphics is becoming a popular extra string to any multimedia journalists bow. The most popular (but not necessarily the best) suite is Adobe’s After Effects. Get this with a good guide book, and you’ll be creating knockout animations in months.

External hard drive: ($290/£180) Just like no-one is disappointed to receive some Amazon vouchers for Christmas, some extra terabytes always come in handy. This 2TB beast from G-Tech is both reliable and lovely lookin’.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaccson: ($18/£12) this is on everyone’s Christmas list this year, and if it’s anything like the man’s speeches, talks and writing, it’ll be full of wisdom on creativity and business. Not to mention an insight into what it takes to revolutionise an industry.

Kindle Fire: ($199 US Only) People who have upgraded their original Kindle are raving about the Kindle Fire. The new one comes in colour and allows more iPad style user experience, but without the iPad price tag.

Plug bug: ($34.99 – US Only) A downside of all this 21st century gadgetry is it tends to hog all the plug sockets in the house. Well, TwelveSouth have come up with a neat solution: ‘one plug, two chargers, tres cool’.

Vimeo Plus subscription: ($59.99/£38) A year long subscription to Vimeo’s plus service gives you unlimited HD uploads, better viewing stats and a pass to the front of the encoding queue. Well worth it for any serious online video producer.

Glidetrack MobiSlider: ($129/£99 opening offer, December 2011) Yes, the inevitable has happened – someone’s brought out a camera slider specifically for iPhones and other small HD cameras. If you can get past the garish neon green design, this the most affordable way to add some elegant tracking to your smartphone footage.

Camera Table Dolly: ($90/£58 via PhotoJojo) But if wheels are more your thing, then why not try this new Table Camera Dolly – smooth camera moves with a greater variety of angles – a cheap option for any DSLR film-maker.

Holstee Manifesto: ($25/£16) This modest little poster has hit the internet like wildfire in 2011. I’ve had a copy on my wall for more than a year and it makes an inspiring reminder to go do epic shit. If you’re a freelancer or entrepreneur, this is good piece of decoration.

The gift of knowledge

Cheesy I know, but if you’d rather give someone’s brain a present for 2012, then here are three unrelentingly practical ideas guaranteed to make the recipients life better.

A good book: Easy to wrap as well! Here are 10 ideas from my other blog post this week.

Lynda.com ($25/£16 per month) There’s Google of course, but then there’s Lynda.com – the best online tutorial place I can think of. If you want to learn InDesign, Final Cut Pro, even HTML then Lynda’s got it all. A month’s subscription (enough to pick up a new skill) is in that perfect price range too.

RosettaStone ($240/£150+) Want a sure-fire way to beat the competition in a job interview? Knowing your Bună dimineaţa from your Guten Morgen is a sure fire way. Personally I’m trying to improve my French, but Rosetta Stone offers a range of languages to learn at home.